Dr Natalie Polack joined The Data Lab MSc Programme in 2017, undertaking her course at Stirling University on a part-time basis. This allowed her to balance studying with parenting, and to navigate the pressures that come with completely changing the course of your career.
In 2019, she completed a six-month remote placement with Public Health Scotland, which eventually led to her permanent role as Information Analyst. Find out more about her story…
What made you decide to join The Data Lab MSc Programme?
After completing my doctorate in Chemistry, I worked in the industry for ten years, covering research and development and marketing and communications, before my last role was made redundant. This was the spark I needed to explore a new career entirely – but I wasn’t really sure which way to turn.
After meeting up with a friend who told me she was embarking upon a Masters at Stirling University, I decided to look at the courses on offer. I started reading more about the new, up-and-coming area of data science, and it was on the university site that I discovered The Data Lab.
It was an easy choice to join The Data Lab MSc programme. It offered me the flexibility I needed as a mother with a young child to care for. Both The Data Lab and Stirling University were forthcoming in meeting my needs and they allowed me to undertake the course part-time, over two years.
Ultimately, I decided to embark on this course in particular due to its connection with The Data Lab – the opportunity to complete a placement as part of the degree was a big part of my decision, as well as the chance to attend various workshops and networking events throughout the year. I thought it was a great way to meet industry contacts and really get stuck in. As well as CV writing workshops, they also run Innovation Week in June, a teambuilding event that lets you work on the best approach towards a data solution. It was a great way to meet other students.
It was at one of these networking events (Data Talent, which lets you meet with various companies interested in recruiting data science graduates) in 2018, that I met Caroline Crocker of Public Health Scotland. It was interesting to find out more about her experience of working in the public sector – something I’d never done before. From there, I kept in touch and was able to secure a placement with them.
Tell us more about your placement
Again, Public Health Scotland were incredibly flexible in adapting to my needs. Instead of a full-time summer placement, I completed mine from January through to June, and I was able to work remotely. I was set up in the Open Data team, using publicly available data to analyse and decipher trends, and a support network was put in place allowing me to touch base with my supervisor, who I met every two weeks. All of this ensured my experience was enjoyable and well-rounded.
My project focused on child health in Scotland. Using three different data sets, I was able to establish a direct link between the BMI of mothers during pregnancy and the BMI of their children upon entering primary school. In doing so, I was also able to highlight the ease at which the portal could be used to the wider Public Health Scotland team, encouraging more people to start using it to drive insights.
Where are you now?
I completed my MSc in 2019, and started working with Public Health Scotland full-time as an Information Analyst in the Local Intelligence Support Team, providing assistance to Health and Social Care Partnerships and GP clusters across Scotland. My experience on the programme and placement with them was massively beneficial in helping me secure the role.
Now, my projects cover a broad scope of work including palliative and end of life care, mental health and physiotherapy.
The value of data science is immense. It’s such a wide-reaching career field that even in the health sector, there are so many different areas you could be working within – whether it’s identifying trends in mental health, or assisting during pandemics like COVID-19.
Sometimes I’m simply looking at data to identify and establish connections – for example, my palliative and end of life care project involves pulling data from a number of sources to compile a report to help inform strategic planning decisions. Other times, I’m tasked with answering a specific question using data – like whether the introduction of a new physiotherapist service at some GP surgeries has made a difference in the number of hospital referrals.
Would you recommend The Data Lab MSc Programme?
For me, The Data Lab MSc has been life-changing, setting me up with the skills and contacts to embark upon a completely new career. It’s been a valuable experience, and I’d recommend it to anyone considering further higher education, or performing a career U-turn. When I signed up, I was worried a lot of the students would be very young, but it was refreshing to see I was learning alongside people of all ages – whether they were recent undergraduates or, like me, returning to education after some time working.
I’d like to see more information and education about potential STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers provided to school leavers (and younger) in future. I don’t think many people are aware that you can enter the healthcare sector via a number of routes – you don’t need to become a doctor or a nurse to make your mark, the work of the best data scientists in the industry is remarkable
Caroline Crocker is Staff Development Manager at Public Health Scotland. Here’s what she has to say to prospective students:
We’ve worked in partnership with The Data Lab MSc since the beginning, four years ago. Each year, we take on a number of student placements, with four more joining us this summer.
There are multiple teams that offer and deliver analytical work across a really wide spectrum – cancer data, academic research, mental health, palliative care, dentistry… the list goes on. Each year, at least one student successfully navigates the recruitment process and is taken on as a permanent member of our team.
Working with The Data Lab MSc Programme has been really positive, assisting in our search for new talent and complementing the existing routes we already had in place – from apprenticeships, to industrial placements. It’s opened the door for us in sourcing strong calibre students from MSc backgrounds, and with so many different universities and degrees involved, it really widens the net.
I think it’s great for students, too. The strong industry connections set you up for a wide-spanning and fulfilled career. Undertaking a placement with Public Health Scotland enables students to work on a number of different projects from physiotherapy to mental health or cancer, and the same is true if you choose to build your career with us – we’re keen to offer as much flexibility as possible to allow our Information Analysts to gain experience in a variety of fields, which in turn will help with their own career progression.
If you’re considering data science as a career, I would absolutely recommend the Data Lab MSc Programme – from an employer’s perspective, it’s a talent pool brimming with savvy, engaged candidates.