Stefan Phillipe Avey (PhD ’17, Computational Biology and Bioinformatics)

What did you study at Yale? When did you graduate? What is your current profession/job?

I completed my PhD in Computational Biology and Bioinformatics (CBB) in August 2017. I am currently a Senior Statistician at The Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson where I mainly support pre-clinical discovery and clinical biomarker projects.

What do you like most about your current role? What do you find most challenging and/or rewarding?

One of the things I like most about my current role is translating scientific questions into statistical tests or exploratory visualizations through coding. I see myself as a data scientist who is focused on decision science – collecting and analyzing data in order to make better decisions throughout the drug development process. I would say the biggest challenge for me in the past year has been understanding the way a very large company operates and building bridges between people across the organization. The most rewarding part of the job for me is building tools like web apps that scientists can use to analyze their data more effectively and efficiently.

How did your time at Yale shape your career trajectory?

Before I came to Yale I was not even aware of the career path “data scientist” and I didn’t know much, if anything, about the pharmaceutical industry. At Yale I had numerous opportunities to meet incredible people with diverse backgrounds and interests who challenged and inspired me to consider various career paths. I participated in many career-oriented events at Yale and beyond that introduced me to people with similar trajectories.

What are the main skills that you acquired as a PhD student which help make you successful in your current career?

During my graduate school years I developed many technical skills related to scientific computing (for example: R, Python and Version Control) and statistics which I need to be successful in my current role. The most important skill set I learned during my PhD years was how to be a scientist. I’d say the next most important was how to communicate more effectively – especially in slide presentations which are a major form of currency in my industry.

Did you acquire any professional experience related to your line of work while in graduate school?

No. I did not do any internships or have other types of exposure to the pharmaceutical industry either before or during graduate school but I would definitely recommend it to those who have the opportunity. I believe it will make you more marketable and help you better understand the industry. That said, my day-to-day technical work is very similar now to my time in lab during graduate school.

What advice would you offer PhDs who are interested in your line of work?

Firstly, talk to as many people as you can at Yale and beyond. Tell them about your work (a 1′ summary to start) and learn what they are doing. I don’t think I would be in my current role had I not talked to many people about my interests and learned from them how my skills and interests could fit in their industry. Another great piece of advice is to give a talk to a lay audience about your research or something else you’re passionate about. Specifically for aspiring data scientists – some of the advice I’ve received is to “code in public” (e.g. on Github) to showcase projects you’ve worked on or do a pro bono data science project for a non-profit. There are many resources available online for aspiring data scientists to learn technical skills (I’m a big fan of DataCamp). I also really enjoy DataCamp’s DataFramed podcast which is a weekly series of interviews with working data scientists.