What it's like to be a mathematical oncologist in a male-dominated industry
In this week’s Working Girl Diaries, meet Kit Todd, a mathematical biologist who uses math to analyze questions we have about cancer. She lives in Seattle and is super passionate about bringing awareness to women in science!
8:30 am: Wake up, feed the dog and cat, and make coffee and breakfast for my husband Ben and myself. He has a badly broken right arm right now from a skateboarding accident so I’ve been doing most of the heavy lifting (sometimes literally) with housework lately. Check emails and answer a few work ones to get out of the way.
10:00 am: Leave for work. We’ve coordinated our work schedules (Ben is a musician and luthier) because mine’s flexible to be pretty much whatever I want. I am a mathematical oncologist, which usually results in a lot of blank stares when I first tell people. To break it down, I have a PhD in applied mathematics and I work on cancer problems (such as risk prediction and screening scheduling) using mathematical theory and models. My work interfaces math, statistics, biology, and health outcomes. Ultimately, I want to use math to answer quantitative questions we have about cancer and to postulate new ones.
We walk two miles together to the free shuttle to the cancer research center because a) I’m trying to save money and b) I’m not a fitness person so my commute walk is my only exercise during the week.
11:00 am: Arrive at Fred Hutch cancer research center. We have beautiful facilities and kickass research happening at lab benches, computers, and in clinic. Joe Biden even came and took a tour last week!
11:30 am: Sweet! I get an email inviting me to give a lecture at the University of Washington Department of Pathology on my recent work. This group of researchers is really cool and doing very interesting work in aging so I’m stoked they’re taking an interest in me. This reminds me to post a photo on my social networks about the seminar I’m giving tomorrow afternoon at Fred Hutch. I like to post math-related social updates to network with mathematical biologists and cancer researchers on Twitter and bring awareness to work by women in science (something I’m super passionate about). I post both science and personal stuff on my pages to provide a snapshot of a woman mathematician who is normal and who likes to have fun (shocker- there are lots of us!)
12:30 pm: I always work through lunch, mindlessly eating my packed lunch at my desk as I stare at output from code I’m running for a collaborative National Cancer Institute paper. The paper is about the cost-effectiveness of different treatment strategies for patients with a premalignant disease called Barrett’s esophagus, as predicted by math/statistical modeling.
1:30 pm: Obsessively refresh the web page that has the progress of a different, first-authored paper (aka “my baby”) that is under peer review and has received positive feedback thus far in the process. Come onnnnnnn editor, accept!
3:00 pm: Informal meeting over coffee with a bioinformatician, Sean, talking about some details about the data processing he does and how to make our work pipeline from his lab to ours more efficiently (this is partly the topic of my talk tomorrow).
4:30 pm: Grrr, feeling frustrated at the IT guy who refuses to physically come to my office and help me with my issues on using the big computer processors (I’m much more into face-to-face learning interactions).
5:10 pm: Deep in a math-hole (this is usually my most productive time of day for my work).
6:30 pm: Go home and make dinner (leftover ham from Easter).
9:00 pm: Finish my presentation slides for tomorrow…over beers. It helps me think, 😉
11:00 pm: Watch the newest RuPaul’s Drag Race (our favorite, duh) and sleep!
8:00 am: Get up a little earlier today to prepare for my seminar and walk to the shuttle stop.
10:30 am: Rehearse my talk in my office. I usually do this to calm my nerves and make sure I remember all the points I want to hit.
11:30 am: Put on my lecture-giving attire (so profesh in that bathroom mirror) and meet the seminar organizers to take me to a sushi lunch (my fave!). Extra points – the three scientists who meet me are women! We have lively discussions ranging from the biology of aging, prostate cancer risk, Hawaiian vacations, and the current staggering incidence of opiate-related deaths. They ask me lots of questions about my upcoming move – I’m taking a new 3-year postdoc position at the Queen Mary University of London in May so life is a whirlwind right now (Ben and our dog Leroy will be meeting me there later this year). I get really excited to talk about moving to the UK with other scientists because moving to a new lab abroad is one of the perks in my field.
2:00 pm: My seminar went really well (although I always speak a little too fast and, of course, my laser pointer wasn’t working). Biologists and mathematicians were interested and asked lots of questions, which I love because it helps me think of potential new research directions.
4:30 pm: Take the bus to meet my girlfriend Sarah for happy hour at a place in my neighborhood we’ve never been to. We catch up and eat while our husbands take the dogs for a long walk.
7:00 pm: Sarah and I make massage oil candles at home, chill and hang with the boys, put yin yang decals on our nails, and listen to records.
8:00 am: Pulling myself out of bed after a sleepless night – I have some sort of stomach flu. Maybe it was from the plane ride home from a bachelorette party I went to in LA this past weekend (Payback, body).
11:00 am: Take a long walk with Ben because it’s sunny and it doesn’t matter how sick you are in Seattle, you never pass up a perfect day in March. I’m lucky to have a job flexible enough that I can always take the time I need off when I’m sick.
5:00 pm: Feeling a bit better and jump into some code I’m working on for the National Cancer Institute project because I have a meeting with the Chair of Gastroenterology at 9:30 am tomorrow morning. Even when I feel like crap, I don’t like to miss a full day of work because there is so much to do and I care about my work a lot.
6:30 pm: Read a paper I am reviewing this month. A part of my job is being an active part of the peer review process for academic journals. We don’t get paid extra for this service nor recognized as a reviewer, and it’s not a perfect process. But I do believe it is the best way to obtain an honest critique of scientific research from expert opinion, thus pushing forward the best scientific advancements.
8:00 pm: Ben brings sushi home for us while I work. Bless him.
10:30 pm: Watch Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday with Ben and crash out (go away flu bug!).