In this blog post, we feature an Interview with Dr. Sasha Shirman, Senior Scientist at Applied BioMath.
When did you first become interested in mathematics and biology?
I have always been involved in math in some way because my mom is a math teacher and my dad is a physicist. We immigrated to the US when I was a baby and my parents weren’t thrilled with the way math was taught in American schools. So they tutored me in math from an early age. They gave me a really solid foundation to excel in STEM classes, so math always felt like a useful tool to understand other subjects for me. On the other hand, I didn’t realize I was interested in biology until I took AP Biology in junior year of high school. I was so intrigued by all of the complexity that the biological world contains and wanted to focus my studies in that direction. In college, I realized that I was not very good at biology classes. I tended to think in a more “math-y” way. I was lucky that my college had just started teaching a formal quantitative biology course and I realized that there was a way to combine my interests with my strengths.
What does your current role entail and what makes you passionate about your work?
At my current role I work with clients who are pharmaceutical companies to model the expected behavior of their drugs. Our goal is to take data from one stage of drug development and predict the behavior in the next stage. This allows us to advice our clients to make the necessary adjustments and decisions to keep the drug trials as efficient and low risk for both animal and human subjects. We aim to increase the success of drug development by allowing drug companies to make more informed decisions about drug development.
I really enjoy the fact that I get to do fun math and biology while also making a measurable and positive impact on patients.
What made you pursue your current career path?
In part my reasons for pursuing my career path were purely selfish. I really like modeling biological systems - I find it very satisfying to describe a real situation with mathematical equations and see my predictions match (or not) with data. But the reason I decided specifically on quantitative pharmacology is that I really wanted to have a positive impact on the world. I want to be one part of improving people’s lives and this job was a straightforward way of combining what I like to do with what I want my impact to be.
What does a typical work day or week look like for you?
I have a few types of typical work days. The first type of day is when I have a lot of open time and few meetings. These days usually involve getting some bookkeeping or random tasks out of the way. I might read a paper if I don’t have any pressing deadlines. Typically I’ll work for a few hours on each of my two client projects. Then I try to get a few other tasks done during the day. If I have a meeting with clients approaching I will also prepare slides and work on polishing results. These types of days are pretty flexible and I often spend some time in a local cafe working. The second type of day is when I have internal company meetings. These days are not very different from my other type, but include discussion of project progress by all participants on the team. It’s where I can bring up preliminary results and get confirmation from my team mates that everything I’ve done is reasonable and makes sense. If I have questions, I can ask the biologists or leads on my team to help guide me. The last type of day is when I have meetings with clients. These days usually involve a bit of preparation for my presentation. Then my team will present any novel results to clients and we discuss any adjustments that need to be made. These meetings are usually pretty collaborative and it’s very satisfying to have the ability to work with so many different teams on so many different topics.
How did you find your current position?
I heard about Applied BioMath when one of the scientists at the company came to give a talk at Northwestern University, where I was a postdoc at the time.
What skills that you learned in graduate school are the most useful for your current job?
As cliche as it sounds, the most useful skill from graduate school was the ability to learn and find new information. I spend a lot of my time working on drug indications and disease types that are new for me. Many projects require new types of mathematical methods. So I have to learn new things constantly. Being able to quickly and efficiently find answers to problems I’m running into is probably my most valuable skill.
Do you have any advice for someone considering a career like yours?
Practice talking to people about your work. Even though my job is as a scientist, a huge and vital portion of my work is the ability to communicate science. There are going to be tons of people who have the same degree and skill set as you. To stand out in the crowd of applicants and to make a good impression on your bosses and clients you need to make all the very complicated work you’ve done sound understandable and easy to digest. Speak to as many people at conferences as you can. Go up to company tables and grab a business card. Ask about other people’s work and make connections to what you do. Make sure you are friendly and memorable.
What do you like to do in your spare time outside of work?
If I want to get moving, I rock climb and take aerial arts classes. But if I’m feeling a bit more lazy and want to chill out I’ll either read a book or knit something.
Any final comments or advice?
The first job search is the hardest. You will probably have to send out a lot of applications. But once you’ve built up a bit of a network, the subsequent job searches will be easier. Don’t get discouraged. But also, remember that your job shouldn’t be your whole life. Make time outside of work to live your life. And make sure you’re getting paid what you’re worth.