In this edition of ‘A day in the life’ meet Sarah Dawson and find out what a typical day in her role is like.
Sarah is a Statistician working on the design and data analysis of clinical trials.
What did you do before joining the BSU?
I completed an Undergraduate degree in Statistics followed by a Master’s degree in Medical Statistics. Following this I worked as a statistician for Cancer Research UK for 3 1/2 years, and then for Cambridge Clinical Trials Unit for 3 years, before moving to the BSU in 2017.
What does a typical day in your role involve?
The majority of my work is computer based, so I spend a fair amount of time at my desk. I provide statistical support to a number of clinical trials, so I can often be found working on grant applications, study design and sample size calculations, writing protocols and statistical analysis plans, and doing data analysis.
I work closely with my trial teams and we have regular study team meetings, and I also meet regularly with other statisticians within the BSU, which provides a great opportunity to brainstorm and share ideas.
The BSU also hosts regular seminars and organises weekly meetings called BSU Together which I regularly attend. Both the seminars and the internal talks at BSU Together cover a really wide breadth of topics, so there is always an opportunity to learn something new. They are normally followed by questions from the audience and some lively discussions, really highlighting the passion and expertise that exists within the BSU.
What is your work schedule?
I work part-time – three days a week. At the moment I’m working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so my daily routine has changed a little bit. I no longer have a long commute into work which saves me 2-3 hours a day in travel time, which is a huge bonus for me as I have a young son so my time is very precious. Whilst I’m working from home I try to stick to my previous work routine as far as possible as this helps me get in to the right mind set for work, and helps me to keep my home life and work life as separate as possible. I usually start my working day around 8am and aim to finish around 4pm. Maintaining a good work-life balance but also having flexibility over my working hours is really important to me, especially whilst working from home and with the ever changing challenges that COVID-19 presents to working parents. At this stage in my career I’m able to work independently for much of the time, so I have a lot of freedom over how I structure my day and prioritise my workload.
As I spend a lot of time working at my computer I make a conscious effort to change position frequently and build extra movement into my day. I usually aim to go for two short walks, one mid- morning and one mid- afternoon. I always make an effort to eat my lunch away from my computer too, and pre-pandemic this was a good opportunity to chat with colleagues in the tea room. Now I might listen to some music or a podcast, watch TV, read a book, or spend lunch with my partner and son if they are at home.
What does your work space look like?
Before the pandemic I shared an office with two other statisticians. I had a large desk with a PC and two monitors. Whilst I’m working from home my work space is a lot smaller with just a small desk and a single large monitor. Up until recently my desk was set up in my spare bedroom, but we are currently re-decorating so I’ve temporarily re-located to my bedroom.
I’m quite often joined by my cats, who like to sit nearby whilst I’m working. One is particularly keen on making guest appearances whenever I have virtual meetings! It’s nice having the cats for company especially on the days when my partner is out at work and our son is at nursery.
I’m also quite green fingered, so although it’s currently cold and snowing outside I’ve got some potato tubers chitting nearby on my windowsill and I’m also trying to grow some sweet potato slips this year too, so they are also occupying some space near my desk right now!
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I’m working on the statistical analysis plan for the NOTACS trial. This is a document that outlines every statistical analysis we intend to do on the data from the trial. A lot of thought has to go into this document as it’s best practice to have the statistical analysis plan signed off well in advance of me seeing any data, so that there’s no chance for the data to bias your decisions about what analyses to do.
What is your favourite part of your job?
My absolute favourite part of my job is when I get my hands on some data to analyse.
A huge amount of time, thought and planning goes in to setting up and running clinical trials, so when some data finally arrives in my inbox after all that preparation I can’t wait to get stuck in! This often means I’m the first to see the results from my trials too which can be very exciting!
What is your least favourite part of your job?
Working on statistical analysis plans is one of the more challenging aspects of my job – you really need to be able to see the minutest of detail whilst also being able to step back and see the bigger picture. You really need to be able to think ahead and plan for every analysis you intend to do before you see any of the trial data, which is often much more difficult than it sounds, especially for complex or large clinical trials. This is where working collaboratively really helps – the clinical members of the trial team may want to answer particular questions and the statistician(s) may have their own ideas – and by working together we can make sure we get as much out of the data as possible whilst maintaining good scientific rigor.
What advice would you give to anyone considering your role?
Statistics is often a misunderstood area, but there are so many opportunities and interesting paths you could take within the field of statistics. It’s certainly not for everyone, but for anyone with a passion for data and research, working as a clinical trial statistician can be extremely rewarding. I established my career as a statistician through quite a traditional pathway, starting with degrees in Statistics and Medical Statistics and then working as a statistician. However I’ve definitely started to notice more and more people becoming statisticians who have taken less traditional routes to get here, and in fact those people often bring a different perspective to statistics that can really enhance their work. The traditional route is definitely not the only route into statistics!
Blog post by Sarah Dawson