“To change the status quo we need to prioritize policies that will help cultivate a healthy environment” With Dr. Samrachana Adhikari

To change the status quo, we need to hire more women in STEM. We should prioritize policies that will help cultivate a healthy environment for everyone to flourish. And most important, women should not be penalized around issues of giving birth, taking care of family members and adopting social roles that are often expected of […]

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To change the status quo, we need to hire more women in STEM. We should prioritize policies that will help cultivate a healthy environment for everyone to flourish. And most important, women should not be penalized around issues of giving birth, taking care of family members and adopting social roles that are often expected of them.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Samrachana Adhikari.

Dr. Samrachana Adhikari is an Assistant Professor of Biostatistics in the Department of Population Health, NYU Grossman School of Medicine. She joined NYU in 2018 after a PhD in statistics from Carnegie Mellon University and postdoctoral research fellowship at Harvard Medical School. Her research interests center around developing and implementing statistical and machine learning tools to solve problems motivated by real-world applications in medicine, global health and education. Dr. Adhikari grew up in Kathmandu, Nepal and travels there every winter to teach artificial intelligence, hike and spend time with her family. She is also very interested in capacity building and training young women from low and middle-income countries to conduct research in quantitative fields (mathematics, computer science and statistics).

Samrachana is a recipient of the Johnson & Johnson 2020 Women in STEM2D Scholars Award. The Johnson & Johnson WiSTEM2D Scholars Award seeks to fuel development of future female STEM2D leaders and feed the STEM2D talent pipeline by awarding and sponsoring women at critical points in their careers. The goal is to support the research passion of the awarded women and inspire career paths in their respective STEM2D fields. The winners and their research, across each of the six STEM2D disciplines, represent pivotal global innovations across diverse fields of interest.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Igrew up in Kathmandu, Nepal and was there until high school. I came to the US for college to study Mathematics and Economics. While at Mount Holyoke college, I got exposed to academic research through summer internships and senior thesis work. For example, I spent a summer in Nashville, Tennessee as a part of research experience for undergraduates (REU) at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis to quantify biodiversity in the Smoky Mountain National Park. During that REU, my team collaborated with scientists from various backgrounds including mathematical modeling, zoology, biology and forestry. While I got drawn towards data, I was also fascinated by the idea of working on an interdisciplinary project with experts in their respective fields. I thus decided to pursue a graduate degree in Statistics and went on to Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) for a PhD in Statistics right after my undergraduate degree. I was also involved in various research projects during that time, including a summer at University of Chicago as a Data Science for Social Good Fellow. After that I was at Harvard Medical School for a post-doctoral research, before I came to New York University Grossman School of Medicine as an assistant professor in Population Health (Biostatistics) in 2018. In my current role, I conduct statistical research to develop new methods for analysis of medical data as well as apply the statistical methods to build evidence for better care in health services research. I also mentor students and junior researchers on statistical research. Along my career path I have met very impressive mentors and researchers and they further reassured my decision to stay in academic research.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Hmm. This is hard. As I work on interdisciplinary research, most of my days are interesting; I am always learning new information from my scientific and medical collaborators. One experience does stand out. Last summer, I was nominated to be a part of the Paradigm Project Community organized jointly by Academy Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The goal of the community is to help health services researchers incorporate design thinking in their work to shift the paradigm of the research. Design thinking approach is different than traditional research. In traditional research, we are guided by our hypotheses. Based on the hypothesis we trace back to ideas that could help us test it. Whereas in design thinking, we start with ideas on a broader theme and through steps of ideation, prototyping and testing, we iteratively refine the scope of the idea until a final product is realized. Design thinking challenges many researchers, including me, as it falls beyond the realm of what we are used to in our work. But it has certainly been an interesting experience.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I feel fortunate to be a part of a world class institute. The school of Medicine at New York University provides opportunity to collaborate with diverse researchers. Everyone here is doing meaningful, impressive science and to witness that as part of my daily job is pretty amazing. As a quantitative researcher, it can often be very isolating when we cannot apply our methods in real world. However, at NYU I have never experienced that isolation.

Dedication of researchers to collaborate and work together in building evidence for better care and understanding of the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a testament to the collaborative environment at NYU Grossman Medical School. Within days of the early rise of the pandemic, researchers were collecting data, brainstorming ideas and talking to each other to efficiently answer many questions that were unanswered but important for patient care. I was part of one such study led by a cardiologist at NYU, where we used patient’s electronic medical record data to assess whether hypertensive medication made patients more susceptible to COVID-19 infection. Our analysis helped fill the vacuum of data and evidence at that time.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes certainly! I have been thinking about how to use contextual data such as community level indicators of neighborhood poverty, access to health, access to public services as well as social data including income, family size, household crowding, to accentuate medical history data from electronic medical record to build a more just and bias free predictions of health outcomes. Increasing evidence shows that a person’s living condition and their access to care is really important determining factor of their health. And statistical/prediction methods need to be adopted to incorporate these spatial and social factors in the analysis.

Another line of my research is focused on answering causal questions in medical research when randomized controlled trials are not feasible. For example, if we wanted to test whether medicine A is more effective than medicine B in curing some disease C, we have to make series of assumptions about observed data. I am interested in thinking about how simulation-based approaches could be utilized to understand such cause-effect relationships.

My works has direct relevance in medical and health services research. The tools and ideas I developed can be implemented to help policymakers with evidence-based decision making. They are also crucial in improving the quality of data analysis and quantitative research which can eventually improve care for patients in clinical setting.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Not at all. We still don’t have enough women in leadership positions in STEM. While some fields have managed to diversify their faculty, traditional fields such as mathematics, computer science and statistics are still dominated by men. We are not doing a good job in changing that and have done especially poor job in recruiting women in color. We have a long way to go to change the status quo.

To change the status quo, we need to hire more women in STEM. We should prioritize policies that will help cultivate healthy environment for everyone to foster. And most important, women should not be penalized around issues of giving birth, taking care of family members and adopting social roles that are often expected of them. For example, recent data has shown that men were submitting/publishing more paper during COVID pandemic compared to women. Many of my women colleagues who had small kids were very much struggling with child care while also managing to work. This might unintentionally hurt promotion prospects for women scholars, but that needs to change.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Lack of representation in leadership, I think is one of the biggest challenges. I remember being an only woman in my cohort and among very few women in the class or group meetings during my graduate school and feeling isolated at number of occasions. Not seeing other people like you often makes you question your intelligence and intellectual ability. And while we might have a better representation of women as students now, we still don’t have enough women faculty in many departments. There are even fewer women in decision making positions. The impact of this unequal representation can be enormous. This will further discourage young women to pursue a career in STEM when they don’t have a role model who looks like them.

While the playing field is not the same, the level of scrutiny is often higher for underrepresented groups. With equal and diverse representation in decision making positions, we can level the field.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

Few common myths in my opinion are: you are less talented if you are not outspoken or if you are less aggressive. That you have to work all the time if you want to succeed. These are beliefs propagated by a certain demographic and it certainly is not true for everyone. The way you look, you dress, you talk and present yourself, does not define the quality of your work.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. be compassionate and open

2. listen

3. give benefit of doubt

4. have a clarity in expectation

5. plan ahead

These are the qualities I have observed in my women mentors and I try to live by them as well. Compassion does not make you ‘weak’ or ‘easy’, but rather opens you to different ideas and personality and helps you work with people who might have different world views than you. Listening is another important leadership trait. Everyone in your team has something to contribute, and if you didn’t listen close enough you might totally miss that. I also believe the first instinct of a leader should be to give benefit of doubt to their trainees. This will help foster trust and creativity. Of course, it always helps to have clarity in expectation from the get-go and to plan ahead to avoid any unforeseen circumstances. I believe leadership means creating an opportunity for other people in your team to grow, foster and contribute. And these traits are crucial for that.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

My answer to the ‘5 leadership lessons’ are also relevant as advice. To emphasize, communicate expectations and be willing to listen. People come from very diverse experiences and we might not be able to connect with everyone. But that does not mean we should make assumptions about their abilities, work ethic and morale.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

I have yet to manage a large team in my role. However, from my observation, in addition to the things I have said above, communication is the key.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Yes, definitely. Mentorship has played a tremendous role in my life. I owe a lot of my academic career to my mentors, and it is quite hard to pick one person.

My teachers and professors at Mount Holyoke College, Carnegie Mellon University and Harvard, all had influence in my learning and teaching. My PhD advisor Brian Junker at CMU gets a lot of credit for keeping me interested in academia and for that I am forever grateful. I also learned a lot about research and navigating academia successfully as a woman from my post-doc advisor Sharon-Lise Normand, a collaborator and mentor Sherri Rose from Harvard University, and a collaborator Tracy Sweet from University of Maryland. They continue to give me career and personal advice and are all part of my existing support system.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I always try to work on problems with real world relevance to support evidence-based decision making.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am very interested in capacity building in low and middle-income countries and training young women around the world to conduct research in quantitative field (mathematics, computer science and statistics). Would love to collaborate on that.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My mantra has been “Success comes with persistence, patience, and hard work.” None of my big break-throughs have been easy. Every good work needs hard labor and time to fruition. People often get impatient and look for short-cuts. But I don’t think there is one.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Definitely Michelle Obama. She is an inspiration to me, like she is to many others. It will be an honor to meet her, learn more about her drive and discuss about her amazing work around ‘Girls Opportunity Alliance’.

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