Sally Embrey of DataRobot: “Most heroes are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances”

Most heroes are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. They become heroes by stepping up to the plate. As a trained epidemiologist, it was incredibly frustrating to have the skillset to support emergency response but not be able to make an immediate impact at the start of the pandemic. That’s why I joined DataRobot. We are […]

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Most heroes are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. They become heroes by stepping up to the plate. As a trained epidemiologist, it was incredibly frustrating to have the skillset to support emergency response but not be able to make an immediate impact at the start of the pandemic. That’s why I joined DataRobot. We are all looking to find creative solutions to support communities that can directly make a difference. People worked around the clock at solving the greatest challenges created by COVID-19.


As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sally Embrey.

Sally Embrey is the VP of Public Health and Medical Technologies at DataRobot. Sally’s career has been focused on the intersection of public health, technology, and innovation with advanced degrees in epidemiology, environmental and occupational health, and environmental engineering. She is a former CDC researcher and has led numerous research initiatives, including the development of clinical trials and international and US-based emergency preparedness and response.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains — Huntington, West Virginia and Roanoke, Virginia — so my family spent a lot of time hiking and camping. Both of my parents still live there and anytime I go home in the mountains I still wait tables at their Southern restaurant.

My background is in epidemiology, and previously I was deployed as an emergency response worker in Nigeria. It was the most meaningful work I had done and was able to see my immediate impact on people’s overall wellbeing.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

In fourth grade, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind In The Door, which left a lasting impact on my life. Meg Murry, the strong female protagonist, is interested in science and discusses cell structure and disease in-depth. Simultaneously in school, I was learning how to use microscopes in science class. Being able to see the cells being discussed in my book really sparked my passion for science.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Every day, I remind myself of the quote by Khalil Gilbran, “Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as the attitude you bring to life.” It is a great reminder that the attitude you bring into a room matters. We all go through difficult times, but if you can go forward with a positive attitude, you will set a positive tone. I bring this into my work at DataRobot and it has made a big difference in my health and wellbeing, and I think for my teammates as well.

Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently helping lead a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

DataRobot is committed to solving the world’s biggest challenges through AI, and the organization stepped up to the challenge during the pandemic. As a result of following poor decision-making models interpreting COVID-19 data, there were a lot of unknowns at the beginning of the pandemic. This motivated DataRobot to create better AI models to improve decision-making, decrease the spread of COVID-19 and ultimately save lives.

Initially, our work focused on forecasting models — where the disease was spreading, how cases were emerging, the severity of each case, and so on. But as the pandemic continued to spread into our daily lives, DataRobot developed innovative solutions for addressing supply chain issues, improving testing strategies, and reopening K-12 schools. For example, DataRobot worked closely with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and local health officials to deploy nearly 350,000 antigen tests in the Philadelphia area to help with school re-openings. As a result of this collaboration, more than 450 schools have reopened to in-person learning, using rapid antigen tests to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

A hero is someone who steps up to meet every challenge, cares about others and puts the greater good first. I am fortunate that DataRobot also prioritizes those values and is mission driven, particularly with our daily work that is enabling decisionmakers to better support the health and wellbeing of their communities through the power of AI and data-driven insights.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

Most heroes are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. They become heroes by stepping up to the plate. As a trained epidemiologist, it was incredibly frustrating to have the skillset to support emergency response but not be able to make an immediate impact at the start of the pandemic. That’s why I joined DataRobot. We are all looking to find creative solutions to support communities that can directly make a difference. People worked around the clock at solving the greatest challenges created by COVID-19.

A hero must have purpose even if they can’t put an exact finger on why. Throughout the pandemic it has been incredible to see our employees’ unwavering commitment to solving this data science problem and creating a better world. I think we all knew our shared purpose was to keep our family, friends, and larger communities safe, and we woke up with that drive every day.

Other characteristics of a hero is honesty and integrity. You must stand up for what you believe in, and as a scientist, I think what you believe in needs to be grounded in facts. This was one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic… being honest about what you know and don’t know and standing up to correct misinformation.

And finally, I think empathy is an often-overlooked characteristic of a hero. It can be hard to put yourself in another person’s shoes, but you are able to be a more effective leader when you do. Throughout the pandemic it was important to me to reach out to friends and co-workers who had sick family members or friends, so they knew they had a shoulder to lean on.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

To me, there is no more impactful thing than empowering people to improve their long-term health outcomes, and that is often done through giving them the tools and knowledge necessary to make informed choices.

At DataRobot, we are motivated to utilize our unique skillset to address challenges. Recently, a friend of DataRobot contracted the coronavirus. But by using ContagionNET, our fast and accurate antigen test, and using a blood oxygen monitor provided by the company, he was able to determine it was time to seek treatment and ultimately received necessary and life-saving care. Having direct impact on people’s wellbeing is a main factor driving ordinary people to heroism.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

At the beginning of the pandemic, experts said the United States would experience a bad two or three weeks of lockdown, which turned into well over a year. These inaccurate projections were due to poor decision-making models and information sourced from the wrong places. This was a major catalyst for DataRobot to create better forecasting models using AI. We developed a long-term forecasting model utilized by multiple federal partners to better understand the scope and spread of COVID-19. This model helped drive site selection during the vaccine trials by predicting where outbreaks were most likely to occur up to 8 weeks beforehand.

Every city was reporting data around COVID-19 differently and there was inconsistency in the types of tests that were being reported. We knew that decision-makers can’t draw meaningful insights from the data if you have inconsistent data sources. The key to powering our models was bringing all these sources together, understanding which ones were accurate and could be used, and tying the pieces together. Every city, county and state were doing something different, and we needed to glean important information from that to make decisions around shutdowns, re-openings, etc.

Previously, I was deployed in Nigeria for emergency response work, and up until COVID-19, that was the most meaningful work in my life. Seeing communities ravaged by the virus was a huge catalyst for acting. As an epidemiologist, I have the skillset, knowledge, and background to step up to the plate and make a difference.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

Throughout the pandemic, my heroes have been grocery store workers and the people who continued to work and serve the public at great personal cost. These unsung frontline heroes put others first and kept communities running.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

At the beginning of the pandemic, the lack of data and accurate information on COVID-19 truly frightened me. Now we have more scientific papers and research on COVID-19 than on Ebola, which is incredible but also a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we have a plethora of information on this deadly disease, but also are challenged to sort through it and identify what is accurate. This has proven to be our next major hurdle.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

There was a lot of self-sacrifice over the past year. From healthcare workers to the grocery store employees, people from all walks of life stepped up to the plate to support their communities.

From a data science perspective, I am hopeful that as a society we can harness data for the truth and build trust and transparency with AI. Misinformation and inconsistent messaging were prevalent at the beginning over the pandemic, but by leveraging AI and data-driven insights, we can better inform the public on future health risks moving forward.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

There was a lot of self-sacrifice happening in every sector of society during COVID-19 that was incredibly inspiring. However, it was disappointing to see a large swath of the population not respecting that and taking continual risks that spread the disease. Vaccinations are the gold standard of public health and disease prevention. The fact that there’s so much distrust around who, when, and how individuals should get a vaccine even though we’ve known for a long time that vaccines are the best solutions for improved health outcomes and preventative disease is very disappointing.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

I have paused and assessed what is truly important. We lost so much time with our family and loved ones and I can reflect how precious those moments are.

Data and science have also taken center stage, which has been a tremendous milestone. It has been incredible to see the world’s scientists came together to tackle the biggest challenge of our lifetimes. My hope is that this will create a foundation for future generations to tackle tough problems with the same level of determination.

In March 2020, we believed the coronavirus would last a few weeks. Over a year later, we recognize that data and science can and should take center stage in finding solutions. The world’s leading scientists came together to find a solution for one cause, and it is really inspiring to see we can come together as a society for good. This foundation must carry over to create permanent societal changes to have consistent data and messaging and be prepared for the next pandemic.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

The message of no more lost years really resonates here. There are things that we’ve gained, but there’s so much time that we have lost. Everyone has recognized that the time that could have been better spent is precious in different ways. This sets us up for better pandemic preparedness and preventing a crisis of this scale from ever happening again.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Start exploring new subjects to find your interest. We learned how precious life is, so use it wisely! Invest your time into your passion. Take this as an opportunity to start a project that brings the most amount of good to society.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

My movement would focus on developing more representative data. To have the best models to solve the world’s greatest challenges, we must first have good data, which often only represents a very singular, siloed subset of individuals. This movement would focus on drawing insights from a diverse population that would foster greater data inclusivity, minimize bias, and increase trust.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

I would love to grab lunch with Melinda Gates. I have long been impressed with her advocacy for often ignored global health issues, particularly those that impact women and girls. I would love to understand how she thinks technology can be thoughtfully deployed in more resource constrained countries.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter. You can also follow recent developments from DataRobot on LinkedIn and Twitter.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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