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Interview with Dr. Pascal Tyrrell

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

Journalist: Shanessa Furtado

Shanessa: Welcome to SciSection! My name is Shanessa Furtado and I am your journalist for the SciSection radio show broadcasted on CFMU 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with Dr. Pascal Tyrrell the Director of Data Science and Associate Professor with the Department of Medical Imaging, Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto where he is also the founding director of the MiDATA data Science program. Thanks for joining us today, Dr. Tyrrell.

Dr: Tyrrell: Thanks for having me, it is an absolute pleasure to be here!

Shanessa: So to get us started if you could tell us about your educational and career background and how you got started in your field.

Dr. Tyrrell: Sure absolutely! I'll start off by just saying that I'm an applied medical data scientist so basically

I study different ways to leverage the information contained in data in order to help improve patient outcomes. Basically making, advancing medicine so that we improve the outcomes for patients.

In terms of how I got to where I am, it is a very long and convoluted path which is okay. I'm not complaining. I'm just saying it is. I'll just say I started out in microbiology and biophysics and botany, interestingly enough, so I was studying with cyanobacteria and that was my first graduate work that I did here at the University of Toronto actually it was called Erindale College at the time which is now a University of Toronto Mississauga. So that's how I got started in research and then I kind of went off that. I did many years of graduate work and ended up in data science by being a data manager at the hospital for sick children. And then I went back and did a PhD in Biostatistics and clinical epidemiology. It's from that experience that I learned to really enjoy data and I had some experience from working in the computer industry as a software developer. So putting all that together my experience working in medical research, my training in biostatistics as well as my experience working in the computer industry as a programmer led to me being a data scientist. So unfortunately I don't have an easy answer for you. I it was a very long path but I'm going to end off by saying there is a positive note to this and that is when I went through all of this, I started my graduate work in in 1990 back and in those years there was not a clear to find path for data scientist as opposed to today when there is and you can actually you know join or sign up for data science programs at University or colleges and then follow a path that's determined for you. So it's much easier today in order to decide to be a data scientist as opposed to when I did it, it was never really described to be a data scientist. There you go, I think that's probably enough to describe where I am coming from.

Shanessa: So for our next question, as the CEO and co-founder of the software startup company SofTx Innovations Inc. can you tell us what inspired you to pursue this endeavor and what are your future goals for the company.

Dr. Tyrrell: Okay wow? Let me maybe unpack that up a little bit because I've only just recently been a CEO, as you know I am a Professor at the University of Toronto so I am very academic. I love that but my work intersects with industry a lot because as I said at the beginning I am applied so I like to see change due to my research and because of that what drives me or what I did maybe that might be a little different than the traditional path that you follow is I never really stopped being a student so that's kind of a perk of being a professor is that you can never leave University and for that reason, I love to learn and I love to be challenged and because of that when I discovered a startup companies which was in 2015 I jumped on board. We put together a company in the medical-device space. You have so much to learn so quickly in order to make your startup successful and I really enjoyed that. So to answer your question now, why do I have my own startup? I really enjoy that environment, I like to be challenged and I like to make things successful. As for what my aspirations for the company are? Well I mean right now we're a small startup company in the software development space. The company is called SofTx innovations and what I would like for it is to be a corporation, so that's the plan is to grow it to the point where it is truly operating as a corporation and successfully that I can walk away from it, and it will remain its own successful entity. I guess that's probably the goals I have for the company and in the meantime it may sound really silly but If you ask me why am I doing it now, it's because I enjoy it, it's not because I have anything to prove it's not because I'm trying to make a lot of money its none of that, its because I enjoy it and then ultimately I'd like to have it be a successful company for as many employees as I can bring on board

Shanessa: Yeah for sure! Being in your position right now and having to take all these risks in your careers there had to be challenges along the way. Do you think you could tell us about some of the challenges and creating a career in research or in stem or starting your own company?

Dr. Tyrrell: Sure! Absolutely! There are many challenges you know that I encountered along the way and I'm sure many of you out there are finding the same ones but the biggest one I think for me was to find a fit for who I am and what I enjoy. I really think that's like a lifelong barrier or challenge that I've had to deal with, just understanding who you are, so that took me a long time to understand what makes me tick and you know what I enjoy and what am I willing to make an effort in. All careers are challenging and you have to make an effort. And that took a long time to see. What your parents wish you to do and would hope for you is a very strong influence and it takes you a while to kind of think hmm am I doing this for my parents or am I doing this for me. And that took me a long time, it was a big challenge because you know ultimately you need to find a job that fits you right, a job you want to grow in and be successful at and enjoy at the same time and that took a very long time. As I alluded to at the beginning, data science was something I really enjoyed. The idea of having a data scientist which is kind of a mix of so many things didn't really exist and it wasn't really a common job so that was probably the biggest challenge for me was to find a happy place in terms of what I do. As I said you have to look inwardly to understand yourself before you can be successful and that took me a long time. So that's probably the biggest challenge I think you know all of you are ultimately thinking well you know what should I study? What program should I be? What degree should I get? That was never really a challenge for me because as I said I just love to learn so I just continued getting more and more training and experience academically. The only thing I can say on that one is I think getting a degree is like eating your bowl of ice cream and the type of degree or the content you know or what program you're in is the flavour. I think what's important is getting an education, understanding how to learn and how to adapt and master new content quickly which is essentially a broad definition of intelligence and I think that's the most important thing.

Shanessa: For sure that's really great advice, I think education is something you should look at as a learning process and take it one day at a time and try to figure out what we enjoy and just use the resources to really enjoy what we're learning and then take each opportunity that we can get to try to discover what we want to do. So speaking of advice, what kind of advice do you have for students who are listening to the show right now and are interested specifically in pursuing a career in data science and medical research?

Dr. Tyrrell: You know specifically in data science there's three pillars to data science. The math/statistics which is one pillar, you have the computer engineering or computer science which is the other pillar and don't forget probably equally as important or more important is the content area, that is understanding the data, understanding what the data is for, understanding how you are leveraging the information that's contained in the data in order to better something that's a very important area as well for a data scientist. So I think many students in STEM that do extremely well and they love math and computers and all that and that's fantastic but then they come to work with me and they say I have all this wonderful experience but I'd like to apply it to medicine and then the hardest part for those students is understanding the data and how to apply it. And so the earlier you get an idea of the content that you know intrigues you or that you find interesting the better for your career in data science. So for instance if you wanted to be in medicine then it would be you know health so whatever your program you would have to understand human biology or health or nutrition or whatever your doing, you need to understand the content in order to apply your skills from computer programming or let's say statistics or math. That's probably the best advice I can give in terms of choosing programs or what academic path to follow. Just don't forget those three pillars and try to get a good mix of all three when you're training. That's probably some of the best advice I could give.

Shanessa: For sure! So for our final question, what do you think our scientific community needs the most right now?

Dr. Tyrrell: I think that's a tough question. At first you are going to think we just need more insight, more tech, more innovation, which is true of course but I'm going to go back to this theme of knowledge and education. Knowledge and education is power right, everyone knows that. I think what we're seeing is because of this ability of the global village and the ability to learn virtually is more and more available to all of us on the planet right now. So really what that means is now is the time to make things happen with that knowledge and I think when you're asking what does the scientific Community need I think that's what it needs I think it needs to actually make use of all of this knowledge in a good way and move things forward finally. I mean not to say that science hasn't been moving forward, but it's been very slow in various areas in the world and I think now's the time to leverage this ability to communicate, work, and educate more online. Firstly because of covid-19 we are all set up to do this all around the world and so now's the time to do this type of collaborative work which is going to move things forward and that's probably the hardest thing you can do because that's where I work and that is applying research knowledge to the end user, to the community and it's very hard, In order to be successful at that you need a lot of grit and tenacity in order to make it happen and so that's what I think the scientific community needs. I think it needs the tenacity to move projects forward and leverage all of this research knowledge that we've been accumulating forever and put it to good use.

Shanessa: Yeah! Absolutely! Science literacy and science communication is very important especially in this digital world that we are living in. But that’s all the time we have for today, so thank you so much for joining us Dr. Tyrrell, it was fascinating to hear about your career and your company. Your career path is really inspiring and really showcases the endless possibilities a career in science can bring.

Dr. Tyrrell: Thank you Shanessa! It was an absolute pleasure being here.

Shanessa: Thank you again and that’s it for this week of SciSection! I'm your journalist Shanessa Furtado and make sure to check our podcast available on global platforms for our latest interviews.


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