Women Who Inspire

To celebrate Women’s History Month, we asked prominent statisticians Nancy Potok, Dionne Price, and Dooti Roy to tell us about their early jobs, mentoring, networking, and the influential women in their lives. Here is what they said.

Nancy Potok is the chief operating officer of NAPx Consulting. She served as the chief statistician of the United States in the executive office of the president until January 2020. She also served as a commissioner on the US Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making and co-chair of the Federal Data Strategy.

Dionne Price is the 118th president of the American Statistical Association and director of the Division of Biometrics IV in the Office of Biostatistics, Office of Translational Sciences, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, US Food and Drug Administration.

Dooti Roy is a senior associate director at Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceutical. In her role, she leads a group of clinical data scientists and owns and leads another global initiative on research and methodological applications of Bayesian statistics in all phases of drug development. She is a passionate promoter of organizational learning and development, diversity and inclusion, mentorship, collaboration, and leadership.

What was your first job?

Potok: My very first job was babysitting as a young teen. It taught me a lot about getting along with people and saving money. My first adult job post-college was technical writing for a government agency. I realized technical writing was quite a bit different than the other kinds of writing I enjoyed, so I went back to graduate school, got a master’s degree in public administration, and was accepted into the Presidential Management Fellows program. That entailed a move to Washington, DC, to work at the US Department of Transportation, and it was also my real entrance into my professional career.

Being a Presidential Management Fellow was a great experience. I got to work on a congressional appropriations committee, participate in a major strategic Coast Guard study, and work at the Federal Aviation Administration and in the Office of the Secretary of Transportation. I made wonderful contacts, and most of my future jobs followed a trajectory set by that experience and the people I met.

Roy: I really must give a three-part answer here. Before starting my PhD, I worked as a financial analyst at HSBC for a year in India. During my PhD in the USA, I worked part time with Cigna for a couple of years, which also funded part of my thesis, and I had another internship at Pfizer. After my PhD, I joined Boehringer Ingelheim, a family-owned German pharmaceutical company, as a biostatistician.

Price: While in high school and as an undergraduate, I had several summer internships I considered ‘jobs,’ since I received a stipend or payment. My first summer internship was at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. I worked with researchers studying diseases that affected the oyster population in local waters. The work involved dredging for oysters followed by cleaning, dissecting, and preparing specimens for microscopic evaluation. The final step was to draw conclusions from our findings. Our work that summer received special recognition, but needless to say, I have not had a desire to partake in oyster feasts since that summer.

My first full-time job was as a statistical reviewer in the Office of Biostatistics in the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at the Food and Drug Administration. I enjoy the work and believe in the mission. Thus, I have remained at the FDA throughout my professional career.

Why did you choose your career?

Potok: I think it chose me. I was never interested in business or making money as a career. I was much more interested in contributing to making the world a better place, especially environmental issues. I majored in environmental studies, worked during school at the California Water Quality Control Board, and initially hoped to work for the Environmental Protection Agency. But after I got to Washington, I realized that, in fact, I was interested in working with data to understand whether publicly funded programs were working as intended and how I could make them better.

I worked in several agencies, in a nonprofit, and in the private sector, but that common theme ran through all my jobs throughout my career.

Roy: Following up from my last answer, I chose this career quite thoughtfully after trying it out as an intern at Pfizer and exploring some other available options. I really enjoyed my internship and therefore was curious and motivated to discover more about the world of clinical trials.

Price: During the summer after my freshman year in college, I had an internship at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Throughout the summer, I worked under the direction of three biostatisticians studying the impact of treatments on epilepsy. I had an opportunity to learn about how the data was captured, as well as conduct data analyses to provide answers to research questions of interest. The summer exposed me to biostatistics, which combined my fascination with medicine and biology with my love of mathematics and statistics. As a result of that experience, I decided to become a biostatistician.

Have you drawn inspiration from other women? Tell us about someone who inspired you.

Potok: At my workplaces, my immediate bosses were all men until much later in my career. But I was active in organizations such as the Women’s Transportation Seminar very early on. I became president of the Washington, DC, chapter, and we held a conference in which Sally Ride, Elizabeth Dole, and Nancy Kassebaum—all at the peak of their power and influence—spoke. I got to meet all three, and they were all incredible role models for me in developing a sense of what was possible career-wise.

I was also inspired by two other women I worked for. Rebecca Blank recruited me to be her deputy when she was Under Secretary for Economic Affairs at the US Department of Commerce. She was brilliant and an incredible strategist for getting things done at high levels of government and influencing policy in significant ways. I took a lot of lessons away from that job.

And I was inspired by Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker when I was deputy director of the Census Bureau. She was far and away one of the best executives of an enormous enterprise that I have had the pleasure to work with, male or female. I learned a lot about leadership from observing her and still share some of those takeaways in the classes I teach.

In the realm of ‘how to be a good person in the world,’ whether at work or with family, I would have to give a lot of credit to my mother as my inspiration. She was the first in her family to go to college, and she became an educator with a very strong moral backbone, incredible integrity, unapologetic ambition, and boundless love of her family.

Roy: I have been fortunate to meet many inspiring women in my journey. I was raised by my grandmother and mother, so from the very beginning, I grew up watching two strong, loving women taking care of me and ensuring all my needs were met. My mother is a teacher in mathematics, and her love of the discipline and dedication to her countless students inspire me to this day.

My love for literature and books was inspired by yet another teacher—Milly Mukherjee. Today, she lies in her bed, too sick to move, yet when I met her a few weeks back, she told me in her characteristic way to never forget to respect people and pursue knowledge.

There are countless more women, mentors, peers, and mentees who continue inspiring me every day.

Price: Other women have inspired me throughout my life. I find it challenging to identify just one person as so many have inspired me. I have been inspired by the stories of women such as Florence Nightingale, Gertrude Cox, Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson, to name a few. From my perspective, all these women faced challenges and made the decision to persevere in their meaningful work for the greater good. Not only did their efforts contribute to the advancement of science, but they also paved the way for other women to become scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians.

While a student, I was inspired by the work of Louise Ryan and Amita Manatunga. These women both laid the foundation for statistical programs designed to expose diverse student populations to statistics and biostatistics.

In your opinion, how do you get the mentors or help you need to enhance your career?

Potok: Sometimes you must ask someone to be your mentor. I’ve had people approach me and ask for mentoring. Usually, although not always, they are in a professional development program that requires having a mentor. But for me personally, my best mentors have been the people I work for.

I always chose my bosses carefully, and if I had a boss who was not mentoring and supporting me, I changed jobs. A good boss will teach you how to be successful, support your advancement, and make sure you have the professional development you need to advance. A good boss/mentor will also show you how to get things done in your organization and how to keep out of trouble.

Other people I know have found mentors through alumni relationships and specific mentoring programs, things that never worked for me but worked for them.

Roy: In my career, I have always been driven by curiosity—to know more, to understand the ‘why’ before the ‘how.’ As I strived to make an impact on the world I belonged to and discover my own strengths, I invested my time in discovering and connecting with people across the organization. When I came across someone inspiring, interesting, I took the initiative to reach out, introduce myself, and explore the connection. Often, that translated into working on a project together, which facilitated deeper mutual understanding. Many such relationships converted naturally to mentorships and a select few to sponsorships.

I discovered many people are quite open to helping others grow if they find them genuine, passionate, accountable, trustworthy, and a finisher. Finishing what you start; delivering what you promise; and being a compassionate, empathetic, and collaborative team player are all super important ingredients of success.

Price: I have learned that networking plays an important role in identifying mentors. I once took a course that defined networking as a process of building, reinforcing, and maintaining relationships to further your professional development and growth. Through these relationships, you may meet a mentor, or your network may be instrumental in assisting with identifying a mentor.

At the outset of a mentor-mentee relationship, establishing expectations is germane to the success of the relationship and obtaining the desired guidance to enhance your career.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before you started your career?

Potok: Talk to a lot of people in different careers before you finish school and keep an open mind. Jobs are changing rapidly, as are skills needed to be successful in certain jobs, so what you think you want may not turn out to meet your aspirations and expectations. You need to find out what the day-to-day reality of working in a particular profession is like. If you are already out of school, still talk to lots of people because many roads are open at the beginning of your career.

Roy: To be honest, I got a lot of advice from my mentors and teachers about this career before I joined. I had been warned that such a job in a large pharmaceutical company can be routine and, dare I say, a bit boring for the more adventurous. Later, I discovered how fascinating, multi-pronged, multi-dimensional, and dynamic this job can be. There are so many opportunities to grow, bring our skills to the table, and shape our own career. I really hope for others to discover this.

I started a biopharmaceutical summer academy with my ex-colleague and mentor in 2017 in collaboration with the UConn Statistics Department, which aims to expose students to this fascinating world of opportunities. The academy is now officially a course at UConn and a conference, “Statistics in Pharmaceuticals,” where people can explore more.

Price: Networking is important to career success, and it is never too early to start.

What is something you thought you knew but later found out you were wrong about?

Potok: In life, there are too many things I’ve been wrong about to mention or to pick out one. From a career perspective, I used to believe I knew how much time it would take to get certain things done. However, I invariably grossly underestimated the amount of time it would take to achieve various outcomes. That ranged from writing a presentation for a conference to the modernization of federal statistics. Now I set more realistic expectations.

Roy: All through my career, I have heard about patient centricity. This is what motivates me and many of my colleagues to come to work every day—to try our best to make a difference to patients, people in this world who are suffering. I thought I understood this world well.

But recently, something brought me out of my complacency—my father was diagnosed with cancer and later passed away from a combination of the disease and COVID-19.

When he was sick in India, I discovered a little bit about the world from the perspective of the patient. I learned about lack of access to medication in countries like India; severe lack of clinical trials for patients; the enormous financial cost of overseas treatment; and—at times—dispassionate, emotionless, behavior from the people at certain facilities, organizations, and hospitals.

Now, I feel we need to do more—much, much more—before we start patting ourselves on the back. The value of human life should not be different depending on where you are born. Today, working for better education, awareness, and access to medications globally is something that brings me motivation.

Price: As a student, I often thought established statisticians and career professionals would not have time to engage students and early-career professionals. However, I later found that most are generous with their time and are happy to provide nuggets of wisdom.

Check out this bonus feature, an 11 x 17 poster that covers these women’s best advice.