The rewards of a career in statistics

ANNE MILLEY: Well, now that you're at Tunnell Consulting, it sounds like you get to work on a wider variety of things, and is that part of what appealed to you in that role, in the role that you now have?

JULIA O'NEILL: Yes, I've always been drawn to working on innovative things. My favorite jobs, even now, one of them includes working in a research and development unit, where I even got to author several patents. I really enjoy that end of things. I'm not very good with routines. I like a variety and new challenges. So yeah, working with a number of different startup companies, as well as some established companies—it is not just startups.

ANNE MILLEY: So people doing new things.

JULIA O'NEILL: Yes, exactly. Whether they're established or emerging companies, they're trying to do something new. I really enjoy that. I feel like statistics gives us a way to be honest about what we do know and what we don't know. Statistics gets a bad rap as trying to cover things up. That's horrible.

ANNE MILLEY: It's misuse of statistics.

JULIA O'NEILL: Yeah, total misuse. What we can do with it, though, is to quantify, how certain are we, really, about—we've done a few studies so far: how good is that information? How certain are we about what the future will look like if we begin manufacturing?

ANNE MILLEY: And statistics helps you take on some of the complexity of these new areas, where we don't have a lot of knowledge about what could be influential in a process. Like you mentioned the fecal matter and the whole microbiome. It’s just fascinating some of the things that are taking place.

JULIA O'NEILL: Yes, tools like the predictor screening—it's just amazing. We would never rely exclusively on the numerical analysis for answers. But to point these very smart people in the right direction of which things are most worth pursuing, it's incredibly helpful and accelerating progress.

ANNE MILLEY: Well, that's the other thing that must be so interesting about your work, because statistics has been described as the language of science. But you need the domain expertise from so many different areas to make progress, especially on these really complex fronts. So you must get to learn a lot of interesting things from these domain experts you work with.

JULIA O'NEILL: You know, that's one of my favorite parts of the job. Also one of the most challenging, because it is literally learning to speak a new language with every project.

I have found, though, one of the things that makes it so much fun for me is that what I learned working in viral vaccines, it turns out to be a great base for many of the new biotech products. For example, many gene therapies are delivered in a viral vector, and it turns out that producing a viral vector to carry a genome is quite similar to producing a viral vaccine. So we're not starting from scratch. And the statistical approaches really help us to build on what we've done previously and just continue to expand.