How I became a… data scientist

There’s no such thing as a typical data scientist, according to Dr Rebecca Pope. But a talent for challenging received wisdom, solving knotty problems and telling compelling stories has certainly helped her to excel in this increasingly valued field

Dr Rebecca Pope readily admits that she became a data scientist “entirely by accident”. The digital and data science innovation lead at healthcare giant Roche “never really had a plan” to achieve such a position. 

“It’s always been about a purpose for me: to work in a job where I can use my quantitative skills to make the world a better place,” she says. 

Although Pope had excelled in maths, sciences and electronics at school, she opted for mostly arts subjects at A-level. But a year before she was due to sit the exams, a discussion in her philosophy class about self-perception sparked the interest that would shape her career. 

Pope became fascinated by questions such as ‘what does it mean to be conscious?’ and ‘how do we understand colour?’ She devoured popular science books, such as The Human Brain: a guided tour by Professor Susan Greenfield, and “fell in love with this thing called neuroscience”.

Too far through her studies to switch courses, she took a gap year and spent it gaining further A-levels in chemistry and biology so that she could study psychology at the University of Manchester. After graduating with a first-class degree, she started working as a research psychologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery (NHNN) in London. She used data gathered in that role for her part-time studies for a PhD in clinical neuroscience. 

Pope’s introduction to data science came through her neuroimaging work. Much of her job at the NHNN entailed analysing images of people’s brains over time and processing that data. This led to an interest in big-data analytics and its potential uses in healthcare.

She joined an IBM programme that enabled her to work with its artificial intelligence tool, Watson Health, before moving on to KPMG, where she eventually became director of data science and AI.

Although her work has been increasingly shaped by technology, she has stayed focused on how it can help people. 

“My job at Roche is about working with the NHS, governments, regulators, clinicians and patients on how we can bring the advanced technologies that we’re used to using in our everyday lives, like artificial intelligence, into healthcare,” Pope says. “That hasn’t been cracked at scale yet.” 

Pope’s expertise as a data scientist has enabled her to change lives. It has been in particularly high demand during the Covid crisis. 

“What we’re building, in partnership with the health ecosystem, has the potential to affect everyone in society, which is a huge responsibility,” she says. “We need only look at the difficult times we’re living through to see that. It’s what gets me up in the morning. I feel so privileged to be a part of it.”

It’s always been about a purpose for me: to work in a job where I can use my qualitative skills to make the world a better place

As well as giving her the satisfaction of finding solutions to important problems, Pope’s role aligns with her natural inclination to challenge the status quo. At school, for instance, she’d successfully argued with her teachers that it was a waste of everyone’s time to oblige her to study a foreign language at GCSE level when she could have been focusing on another subject at which she’d excelled. 

However frustrating this may have been for her teachers, the instinct to question long-held assumptions is crucial in her work. 

“The great thing about having ‘innovation’ in your title is that you can be a disruptor – that’s my job,” says Pope, who acknowledges that this can sometimes make people “feel slightly uncomfortable”. 

Ensuring that this discomfort is handled sympathetically and effectively is one aspect of her job that she can find difficult. 

Pope explains: “One thing I have to constantly check myself on is that I like to run quickly. It’s part of being a data scientist: you prototype and you fail fast. But what often holds up process is not a technology problem; it’s a multifaceted thing, involving people and culture too.” 

She offers examples such as working with the healthcare system to refine a patient pathway or introduce a technology that has never been used in a particular way before. 

“The cadence I want to move at as a technologist needs to align with the cadence of the system. Sometimes it’s OK to stretch that a little, but often it’s really difficult to go to people who may be absolutely shattered from their efforts amid the pandemic and say: ‘I have this great idea; shall we work through it now?’ You need to have some sensitivity.” 

Apart from that, what other key attributes are required in the role? “Genuinely, all you really need is curiosity and the aptitude to learn,” says Pope, who welcomes the introduction of science degrees that are open to undergraduates without scientific backgrounds. “You don’t need to be defined by the fact you learnt, say, biology at school. You can learn facts and equations – that in itself isn’t difficult. Solving hard novel problems is difficult.”

Pope rejects the idea that there may be a particular type of person who would thrive in a role like hers. During her time at IBM, she worked with people drawn from a wide range of fields – and “one of the best data scientists I know is a historian”.

She points to the code-breakers who worked at Bletchley Park during the second world war to crack the Nazis’ Enigma ciphering system. “Had their recruiters told them: ‘You’re going to come in and solve Enigma,’ no one would have had the qualifications to do that. What they actually asked was: ‘Can you solve a crossword?’”

Another important skill, Pope says, is that of communicating your findings effectively. The ability to program and to understand calculus can be picked up relatively easily, but “the ability to tell a story is the real art of data science”.

Perhaps most crucially, data science can provide a focus for members of the workforce who are often underserved: neurodivergent people. Pope was diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age – and the broad view then was that anyone with this learning difficulty would have limited career opportunities. 

In fact, the opposite has been true for Pope, who says: “It gives me kind of a superpower: to spot things and see patterns.” 

Today she is passionate about sharing the message that dyslexia hasn’t held her back. “Being neurodiverse is actually really positive in this field, because you’re meant to think differently. It’s a role in which you can find a loving home for not being wired like everyone else.” 

Read more from the “How I became a…” series here