Katie Thursfield, Director of Content at LetsGetChecked, on Pursuing Non-Traditional Roles in the Health Technology Sector
Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, Katie Thursfield enjoys spending time with friends and taking advantage of good weather. “Ireland is not renowned for its weather,” Katie laughs. “So when we do get sun, we like to make the most of it.”
When she’s not soaking up the sun in the great outdoors or listening to a great podcast in her downtime, you can find her mindfully managing her team as the Director of Content at LetsGetChecked, a healthcare solutions company that empowers individuals to be their own health advocates.
We sat down with her to learn more about her career, creating patient-focused medical-related content that helps bridge the communication gap between patients and medical professionals. Keep reading to hear her story and her advice to women who are looking to advance in the Biotech space.
Combining Business and Science
Katie started off in pursuit of an art major. “I had all the interest and passion for art, but none of the skill,” she laughs. After this realization, she decided to pursue a completely unrelated degree — Science in University College Dublin. “I loved science because it was logical and results-generated,” she says. “You could pick apart something that seemed incredibly complex into its basic components and pathways and make it easier to understand.” Guided by her love for art and intrigue of the human body, she chose to major in physiology.
“I suppose I chose physiology over the other science branches because you can often see it,” says Katie. “There's a visual cue, a visual representation of what you’re looking at, whether it’s a tissue type or cell structure. I always felt this is what led me to pursue it.”
After completing her degree in physiology, Katie knew that she didn’t want to work in the traditional lab setting. "I loved the idea of theory in science, and we had a lot of brilliant opportunities to work in labs, which [I] enjoyed. But I just couldn't see myself doing it long term,” she elaborates. “I wanted to branch into the business a little more to understand the bigger picture of the market.” So she started a master's degree in Business and Biotechnology. “Coming from a purely science-based course, it was a really interesting perspective as it brought science into the business world, and provided insight into how these global leaders in the biotechnology industry bring their products to the market, how they are developed and regulated, and how they respond to the market impact,” she explains. “It gave you a 360-degree view, from the financial side to marketing of pharmaceuticals and other biotechnology products.”
Her newfound passion for science in business led her to an internship at a 3D medical education platform. That internship turned into a full-time job offer, and eventually, Katie grew her career there, where she was able to work on impactful projects that helped students globally. “The concept was based on the gap in the market where medical students were missing a take-home tool to accurately represent the 3D relationships between the body, like how all the muscles intertwine and where tendons attach and how bones are laid,” Katie shares. “We created a platform for medical students to leverage.” This platform helps students conceptualize the human body beyond textbooks and cadavers.
Production of this tool required Katie to communicate the complexities of the human body in a comprehensive and digestible way to artists with limited scientific backgrounds. “It was about finding a counterpoint in the non-science world to open up that communication channel,” she shares. “For muscles, we would use meat as a reference, because everyone knows what that looks like. For tendons, we would use things like fiber material, and cotton wool. There's such a storytelling aspect to science.”
After nearly three years at that company, Katie began looking for another professional opportunity where she could leverage her storytelling and communication skills in the healthcare field.
“I came to LetsGetChecked three years ago because of the type of impactful innovation that they were putting into play. I was following their story and the route to care they were presenting as a solution to so many who need it was really motivating,” she shares. LetsGetChecked is a healthcare solutions company that allows customers to manage their health from home through direct access to diagnostic testing, virtual care, and medication delivery for a wide range of health and wellness conditions
Katie first joined as a Content Strategist and has moved up to Senior Content Manager, and now Director of Content serving both the marketing and product needs across the business. Her team’s main goal is to create patient-centered content that focuses on the needs of the consumer. “It's about understanding what the patient needs and making sure that they feel confident in taking control of their health,” she elaborates. “We know what the pain points are in the current healthcare landscape globally, so we try to identify what they're motivated by, and help them understand that we have this incredible solution that's accessible and affordable.”
One of Katie’s main focuses is strategically finding ways to get the right message out to the right people, especially those with limited healthcare access. “We hear time and time again that patients are feeling unheard, or they feel that healthcare is out of reach both physically and financially. Introducing a service that is such a new concept to people offers its challenges, especially as there is such a trust-building element. What we find is the patient’s voice is the most powerful tool for us because we’re always trying to improve and enhance the experience. Positive feedback about how our tests are saving lives is really the most powerful motivator.” ,” Katie shares.
Katie has been able to build an incredible team of mostly women who are medical writers, campaign creators, and UX copywriters, all working together towards a patient-focused mission.
“So much of what we're doing is translating a service that has been an interpersonal one, and taking that level of assurance and communication into a platform that you can access from the comfort of your home,” Katie explains. “Our best method is to make sure that we're putting ourselves in the shoes of the patient, figuring out how they can feel the most informed and know exactly what to do next.”
Advice for Women in Science
Being an active voice in the Biotech industry is exciting, but at times it can be challenging and competitive. “It’s such an innovative space. There's a lot of energy in it and I know that people are always striving to improve on what they have,” Katie shares. “It's by no means a stagnant area of the market.” Katie offers the following advice to women pursuing a career in science.
- Shake off your preconceptions. “I can completely appreciate that specific industries are associated with a male-led workforce, and that can be intimidating. I’ve been lucky enough to have strong female leaders in the form of professors and mentors throughout my degrees and career which helped shift that stereotype,” Katie says. “At LetsGetChecked, we have an almost all-female content team and a strong female representation in our wider marketing team. I think that many of the newer companies in the health technology sector in general strongly believe that gender isn’t what drives success, it’s an innovative mind and a strong work ethic. If you find an environment that motivates you to grow, give it your all.”
- Pursue different areas of science. The career options for scientists may seem a bit limited, but Katie encourages women to look beyond traditional medical or lab roles. “Science is an incredible jumping-off point,” Katie says. “I've now worked in two companies that have teams of doctors, nurses, and scientists that wanted to work in a setting that wasn't the most traditional.” Remember, the opportunities are there. “Don't feel pigeonholed into a handful of roles off the back of a science degree, because the areas of health technology and biotechnology are rapidly expanding and diversifying in the types of roles that are available. There are countless roles that literally didn’t exist 5 or 10 years ago simply because the technology wasn’t there, but with the expansion of telehealth services there is always a new avenue to pursue.”
Are you ready to combine your passion for science with business and technology? Check out LetsGetChecked’s open roles here!
One of our panelists at that event was Rani Powers, a computational biologist at personal genetics company Helix. We sat down with Rani to discuss her work at Helix, how continued education has shaped her views, her patent and about how her role lives at the intersection of tech and science.
Helix is hiring! Follow Helix on PowerToFly to learn more about their open roles.
Many folks may be unfamiliar with the term Computational Biologist. Can you tell us a little more about what this role entails and specifically what role you play at Helix?
Helix offers state-of-the-art DNA sequencing and an app store full of DNA-powered products that let you "unlock" a wide variety of insights based on your genetics. At Helix, my role provides a primary interface between our science, engineering, product and business teams. As a computational biologist and product manager, I get to combine my experience and passion for genetics and software to envision, design, and build consumer genetics products that empower anyone to understand, and interact with, their DNA. On a day to day basis, this means that I help direct, and bridge the gap between, a team of scientists, engineers and designers. Ultimately, our team helps Helix and Helix's partners (companies like National Geographic and LoseIt!) take complex data inputs – the raw A's, C's, T's and G's in DNA – and transform it into information that a person can use to improve their health or learn about their ancestry.
How did you first become interested in science and tech?
Like many scientists, I fell in love with science at a young age and started keeping "lab notebooks" describing observations I made about nature in elementary school. A few years later, my parents bought our first computer and I moved to designing digital notebooks and pamphlets, which then led to designing websites, video games, and other small projects. In high school, I became interested in the field of biomedical engineering after a high school teacher suggested it as a way to combine my interests in technology, science, and math. (A year later, I applied to the Biomedical Engineering program at the University of Southern California). Ultimately, I chose to pursue a degree in molecular biology and continued to do freelance programming and design projects to earn an income on the side. It wasn't until a few years after graduating that I would realize how valuable that experience would be!
Your diverse expertise includes molecular, machine learning, genomics, and software development. Can you briefly explain how these various skills are interrelated? Do you need to change your thought process or methodology when moving from one to another?
I should begin this answer by saying that I didn't start my career knowing that the fields I was passionate about would combine into an interdisciplinary opportunity. With science and technology in particular, I've always found myself drawn to exploring the outer edges of our knowledge. I remember spending countless hours on the internet reading about how to write a program that would create a webpage "I Spy" game for my younger sister. I can also remember the exact day in a genetics class in college when something clicked: DNA is, quite remarkably, a program for a human. Because of this, genomics and programming are easier to relate conceptually than people may initially realize. Unlike programming though, a person's genomics data doesn't come with a README. Decades of research have offered clues into how changes to a person's genetic code can lead to them having brown eyes or developing Huntington's disease. Software applications extract this information from the millions of letters making up a DNA sequence. For other traits and diseases, the connection to genetics is less straightforward and this is where machine learning is beginning to shine. With machine learning, we can give a computer millions of inputs and ask it to "learn" how to predict a person's risk for heart attack. So for me, having "diverse expertise" is actually less about context switching and more about sliding up and down a mental spectrum blending genomics, software and machine learning. The goal is always the same: make someone's life better.
You are a PhD Candidate (or pardon me if you've already received your PhD). How has you continued education shaped your view of science and tech?
Yes, I am a PhD Candidate at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in the Computational Bioscience program. I will defend my dissertation research in Spring 2019 to receive my PhD! My personal definition of a successful in a graduate career is building advanced expertise in a particular subject, but even more importantly, using that expertise to bridge what we may now think of as separate fields. (This perspective was heavily influenced by Sean Eddy's Antedisciplinary Science and other works I discovered in high school). The crucial takeaway from academia that shapes my view of science and tech is that research is always moving forward. The incredible amount of time and effort that field- and industry-leaders invest to keep up isn't for impressing their colleagues at a dinner party. If you choose to remain in the comfort zone, you are choosing to ignore the discovery that will change someone's life. The strongest science and tech companies this decade will use innovation as fuel – their products will be designed to incorporate new ideas without breaking stride.
For people who aren't able to pursue formal higher education, what resources would you suggest they explore in order to stay current on the ever evolving world of tech? Perhaps there is a website, podcast, book or another outlet that you'd recommend.
We live in an incredible time for learning! There is a staggering number of resources available for those wanting to supplement their formal education, or those unable to pursue it in the first place. As a self-taught programmer, I relied almost completely on library books and free online resources, and there were (and still are!) times when I felt behind the curve. For people who learn best in a more structured manner, I like to recommend online classes at websites like Coursera and edX. Many of the lessons can be viewed for free. If someone is looking to stay current by networking in an active community, I love to recommend Meetups. Some of my other favorite resources are Hacker News and the Y Combinator podcast, Wired, and the Masters of Scale podcast. To get real-time notifications on science topics I'm interested in, I like to use Google Alerts and email notifications from bioRxiv and PubMed.
You have experience serving as a mentor. What advice would you give to fellow women in tech who are seeking a mentor and what do you think are the keys to a strong mentor-mentee relationship.
I am incredibly grateful to the mentors that I've developed relationships with over the years. Their guidance and wisdom has undoubtedly shaped the way I approach problems, interact with others, and think about goals. I believe these relationships are especially important for women in technology. Some advice based on my personal experiences: it's not necessarily important to find a mentor in your exact field. Learning from experts in your own domain has some obvious advantages, but I found that it ended up being more important to me to just find a mentor that I connected with personally. As a result, the mentors I have now happen to work in all sorts of fields! This offers a great opportunity for learning skills that transcend any one job title. Another key to strong mentor-mentee relationship is understanding that it's a two-way street. I make it a point to ask my mentors about what's most exciting to them that week, or what obstacles they're finding challenging and how they're thinking of overcoming them. Finally, my advice is to always be genuine! Take the time to learn about people's interests and get to know them, and you'll find that there are many incredible women in tech looking for others to mentor.
You have a patent! What can you tell us about it?
--------Rani can be found on Twitter @RaniPowers.