From Physics to Healthcare Analytics

We started the “Vencore Geek Tribute” series in our last post with a discussion of Genomics. Today, one of our data scientists discusses her transition from Physics to Healthcare – while studying sickle cell anemia. Stay tuned for posts from other scientists in our midst, including aerospace, electrical, and mechanical engineers, as well as computer scientists. If we’re lucky, we will even get a weather lesson from our own meteorologist.

Tara Grabowsky, MD
Chief Medical Officer, Vencore

People who know I have a Ph.D. in physics often ask me, how is it that I am now working in Healthcare Analytics?  I always find this a funny question, because to me, who traveled this path, it all just fits. 

When I first started studying physics in College, all my research projects involved a medical or biological component.  My first undergraduate research project involved studying how the optical properties of collagen solutions change under varying temperatures.  Later, I would do a study on the conductivity of thin DNA films.  In my physics classes I was learning the complex laws and theories which governed physical systems and how to use advanced mathematics to describe their behavior.  Meanwhile in my research, I was learning to apply this rigor to the study of biological systems.

In graduate school, my projects became much more complex and took years to complete instead of just a summer.  Having always been attracted to the medical field, I chose biophysics as my research concentration.  Biophysics is a growing field, where the ideas and mathematical models which have been effective in describing physical systems are applied to biological ones.  It involves the measuring and modeling of data to understand the behavior of a system and/or to predict future or unmeasurable (in the lab) behavior.

The example I like to give of biophysics is my own dissertation research.  My thesis work was on the disease Sickle Cell Anemia.  In particular—the underlying cause of the disease: the aggregation of the hemoglobin in the red blood cells which stiffens the cell and occludes blood flow.  The aggregation is triggered when the red blood cells deoxygenate.  My experiment involved triggering this event in samples and measuring it under controlled and varying conditions.  With the results, I produced a model which defines with what probability red blood cells are sickling in a patient during transit under varying physiological conditions. The motivation for the work was to provide a model of Sickle Cell Aggregation to aid other researchers in their development of a therapy: Link.

What I have learned from my work is how to model a complex and chaotic biological system using the principles of physics and the application of mathematics.  My physics background has given me experience in studying and analyzing data, as well as using the tools for doing so.  As an outsider, I often find that I look at the data and models in a different way from those who are trained in data analysis fields.  This has proven invaluable time and again, especially on the most difficult and seemingly impossible problems.

I dedicated many years of my life to studying a rare disease during my thesis work.  It had long been my goal and motivation to bring something of value to the study of Sickle Cell Anemia Disease.  Now, at Vencore Health Analytics, I have the opportunity to bring something of value to the study of many rare diseases.  It has been a long journey, but I am exactly in the right place and it was my physics degree which helped me get here.

 Donna Yosmanovich, PhD
Data Scientist