Alumni Highlight – Sheetal Sawant graduated from the COPH in December 2012 with an MPH in Biostatistics.
Hometown: Mumbai, India
Current position: I am currently working as a biostatistician in the Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI) of the School of Medicine at Duke University Medical Center.
Our data focuses on immune responses to HIV infection and vaccines, from human and pre-clinical studies. The most interesting part about this position is getting to collaborate with individuals with varied backgrounds and training, both onsite and offsite, and to manage diverse datasets and requests on a daily basis. I mostly help with data management, quality control, and analysis for studies that fall under three domains: the Collaboration for AIDS Vaccine Discovery, the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, and some non-human primate studies. Working together with this great team comprising laboratory personnel, statistical core members, project managers dealing with different studies, program coordinators, supervisors, and associates at the Statistical Center for HIV/AIDS Research & Prevention (SCHARP, Seattle, Washington) is the best.
What you value most about your time in our program: I believe that the experience and training (like SAS programming, data analysis, presentations, seminars, etc.) gained at the COPH is a foundation stone of my journey. Specifically, working on my capstone project (with the ODDS) and on research other than thesis credit (with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services) were the most notable times. These projects helped me understand the significance of proper data collection and data management before starting with data analysis, and also the importance of collaboration.
Overall, the opportunities to multitask, work in groups, discuss concepts with professors, and work on community projects is what I value most. For example, I really got a feel for raw datasets, and how much thought (like study design) and processing (data cleaning/quality control, etc.) is involved before and after generating large datasets, much before they are ready for analysis, so that reliable interpretations can be made. I also learned the importance of simplifying concepts when dealing and interacting with varied audiences.
All of these skills gained at UNMC were very valuable and prepared me well for the internship at UNC and my current position at Duke.
Advice for current students: Make the maximum out of the learning opportunities available in the college. Don’t hesitate to ask questions when you don’t understand or to discuss your ideas and help others as well; it is critical that you make sure your basics are clear now when you have this chance. Try to collaborate with others as often as you can, and put these public health skills to practice as soon as possible. Not only for biostatistics majors, but everyone: try to get your base SAS certifications done when in school (it is a great addition to your skill set and resume), and consider working on others’ statistical packages and clearing higher level programming certifications too, if possible, earlier in your careers. Keep learning and advancing your skill sets while in school, so that after school you will easily adapt to the pattern of learning new skills based on your job requirements.