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A STEM Career in Clinical Research

InternationalDayofWomenandGirlsinScience FeatureImage 10Feb2020

Editor's Note: I am pleased to introduce you to one of my favorite work colleagues, MaryAnn Morgan Cox. MaryAnn is recognized for her expertise in drug development for immunology, novel trial designs and fostering research collaborations. MaryAnn obtained her bachelor’s degree in humanities and education from the University of North Texas, her masters and doctoral degrees in statistics from Baylor University, and her certification in strategic decisions and risk management from the Wharton School of Business.

The Starting Point

Interviewer: MaryAnn, you have had a varied career. Walk us through your journey. 

MaryAnn: My path certainly did not follow from Point A to Point B! Currently, I’m a team leader responsible for global development of new medicines for autoimmune disorders. But I started my career as an educator and later became a statistician. While I am no longer in either of those roles, I find my current job relies on what I’ve learned about finding important data and using that information to inform scientific decisions (statistics), and how to communicate those principles to a broad group of people so that everyone can be knowledgeable and excited about the work we do (teaching).

I grew up with an inclination toward all of the STEM fields, but I really gravitated toward math because it came naturally to me. As a young kid, I played all kinds of brain games with phone numbers, license plates, and prices, because math was fun. The grocery store was a pretty entertaining place for me. Eventually, math also helped me make sense of what I was seeing and hearing in the world around me, and I became really connected to it. While I loved math and had the good sense to want to do something that came relatively easily to me, I thought it was too abstract and theoretical for a “long term relationship.”  

In my teens, I grew discouraged in my efforts to find a career path that would be fulfilling. I aspired to find a career where I could leverage my gifts in a job that also reflected my personal passion for serving communities and solving people-problems. After high school, I pivoted away from math to humanities and education and ended up going into the classroom to teach. I loved teaching, and especially enjoyed what it meant to impact people on a daily basis. 

A moment of self-reflection: In college, I learned about how people receive and communicate information differently. I knew I needed to communicate to my students in a way that enabled everyone to have the information they needed to participate in the conversation--a conversation where everyone comes to the table and is invited and equipped to contribute. As it turns out, the skills I built as an educator are critical to the success of each conversation, meeting, and decision I have in my current career! 

The Pivot Point

Interviewer: How did you move from the classroom into statistics?

MaryAnn: It was stroke of luck, really. An acquaintance of mine had been prodding me for years to consider taking a statistics class. Once I did, the fit was instantaneous! 

Recalling the first day of statistics class: The professor opened the first class by introducing some very important and compelling public health issues and then proceeded to introduce basic statistical concepts and a few formulas. Then in the last five minutes of the class, he circled back around to how the public health problem was identified and solved through the mathematical formulas and statistics. It was the best surprise ending I’ve ever seen unfold. All a sudden, there was a connection between my mind (math) and my heart (helping people and solving some of our most important problems), and I was forever changed. That was the clear and immediate pivot point to statistics for me! I went on to get my PhD in statistics from Baylor University and then came to Lilly to work in medicines development and clinical trials.

Interviewer:  What was that like--going back to school for a degree in statistics?  

MaryAnn: My first thought was that I could not imagine going back to school. By that point, I was a wife and mom, and going for a PhD with all those other responsibilities just seemed out of reach. Plus, I already had a job that I liked very much, and I was hesitant to leave it. I didn't know very many women who were passionate about their careers, and I didn't know how to ask whether my idea was crazy or inspired. But my acquaintance (who later became my professor and advised my dissertation) just kept saying “the way you see problems, the way that you solve things, your unrelenting dedication to impact people, I really think you need to give this a try.” It took a little bit of prodding on his part, but I’m enormously grateful for his persistence and encouragement to take the leap.

The Final Point 

Interviewer: What are your hopes and dreams for women and girls pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)? 

MaryAnn: Wow. My hopes and dreams are pretty big in this area. My dream is for women everywhere to feel seen and appreciated for the way that they were made. And that our communities, schools, and corporate ecosystem would not only placate girls’ interests in STEM, but celebrate and champion them! 

Tags: Why We Do Research, STEM,

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