Interviews, North America

Dr. Bonny McClain – Healthcare Datapreneur and Chief Data Officer at Data and Donuts

I was speaking at a Women in Technology conference and asked the group (99.9% women) to define “technology”. The room was silent. When I did a little research prior to the conference, the conversations tended to be about work/life balance, timing your career with family planning, or a lot of young women with vocal fry talking about mentorship and how it helped them navigate their careers.

Dr. Bonny McClain is a member of the National Press Club, 500 Women Scientists, Investigational Reporters and Editors, Association of Healthcare Journalists, and past member of the National Association of Science Writers allowing access to a wide variety of health policy and health
economic discussions.

It is this 360-degree perspective that has made Bonny a sought-after collaborative partner as a data analyst, data literacy and fluency coach and consultant as well as healthcare journalist and public speaker.

In a nutshell, tell us a bit about your job, and what role technology plays in it?

Strangely I don’t think of what I do as a job but a career evolution. As a self-described recovering medical writer, I basically was told what to write – and I wrote it. Basically, it was a “Look over here”, “No, not over there” exercise in advanced administrative tasks. In spite of requiring subject expertise and rigorous research methodology it was often reduced to the grey area of marketing disguised as medical research.

I decided to bring my analytic skills to the foreground and focus on the data. I successfully completed an Applied Analytics Executive course from Columbia School of Engineering where we were immersed in Python code and learning to ask critical questions and curate data to find answers.

For the last 5 years I have been teaching data literacy and advanced survey research design to help collaborative partners ask better questions and learn to question answers. I am not big on titles but if I was forced I am a bit of a healthcare data fluency expert. The ability to read research and determine the probability of something being accurate is powerful. How else do you separate evidence from belief?

Where did your professional journey start and how did you get to where you are now?

I was actually discovered you might say. Working as a prolific medical writer in the HIV and infectious disease space I was often asked to speak about the findings or facilitate/moderate large discussions. I could write but was also comfortable in front of large audiences, so we had a bit of a win-win!

I moved into consultancy as I realized I am not exactly employable, and this quote sums it up…

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” (Upton Sinclair)

What is the greatest transformation in technology you’ve witnessed in your career?

I would have to see accessibility. I know, I know, the iPhone put the power of a computer in your pocket but above all that – more and more of us have gained access to datasets that allow us to formulate our own questions and confirm our challenge the status quo. Obviously with that comes great responsibility around security and meaningful curation but moving outside the “firewalls” and to be evolving toward democratization of information is the big one for me.

When you think about ‘women’ and ‘technology’ what comes to your mind first?

Let me preface this first with a story. I was speaking at a Women in Technology conference and asked the group (99.9% women) to define “technology”. The room was silent. When I did a little research prior to the conference, the conversations tended to be about work/life balance, timing your career with family planning, or a lot of young women with vocal fry talking about mentorship and how it helped them navigate their careers. Clearly this isn’t where we will end up but it is interesting that along the journey these obstacles keep popping up.

We always hear there are not enough women working in Tech. What needs to happen to change that? Using your own words, why do we need women focused groups in the tech community?

We need women’s voices because we see things differently. Highlighting what careers in tech look like beyond the skills checklist most companies circulate would be a good first step. The job adverts are ridiculous. Instead of focusing on the ability to articulate a question or identify a problem and arrive at creative approaches, or perhaps data sourcing, they consist of a bizarre collection of technical skills that any person could easily pick up on the job. The things you should be bringing to the table are barely mentioned.

The job adverts are ridiculous. Instead of focusing on the ability to articulate a question or identify a problem and arrive at creative approaches, or perhaps data sourcing, they consist of a bizarre collection of technical skills that any person could easily pick up on the job.

For example, I might use Python to pull in a large dataset and have a look around—how much of the data is missing, how are the variables coded, what ARE the variables, maybe some R or SQL – I let the problem dictate the tool. I am basically tool-agnostic but know what I have on hand to best answer a data question. I also use Tableau data visualization to observe the data – think of Anscombe’s Quartet. You can have 4 data sets with the same descriptive statistics that are quite different upon visualization.

What skills do you need for a career in tech (aside from the actual tech skills)?

You need a creative and curious mind and the ability to hold tensions. Data stories require a 360 perspective—not just your perspective.

What and who were the influencers of who you are today?

Those that said I could – and those that said I could not. Although I specifically remember my dad telling me as a small child, “You have a big mouth, you should get paid for it”…great advice lol.

Seriously though, the books of Edward Tufte got me on the path of data literacy and fluency. Mind. Blown.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 14-year-old self?

Do NOT cut your hair short in college. Other than that, I have learned more from my mistakes and failures than all of the successes. And the hair did eventually grow back…

Dr. Bonny McClain is a member of the National Press Club, 500 Women Scientists, Investigational Reporters and Editors, Association of Healthcare Journalists, and past member of the National Association of Science Writers allowing access to a wide variety of health policy and health
economic discussions.

It is this 360-degree perspective that has made Bonny a sought-after collaborative partner as a data analyst, data literacy and fluency coach and consultant as well as healthcare journalist and public speaker.

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