It took just one course for Wajehah Sanders to discover the potential behind a new path in data science.
A former dental hygienist, Sanders is a program coordinator for a dental outreach prevention program at the Metro Nashville Public Health Department. The department sponsored a data science course that ultimately led her to Meharry.
“It truly piqued my interest, and opened my eyes to all the possibilities in the field,” says Sanders.
Excited about the opportunities data science presents for improving health care, Sanders pursued the M.S. Biomedical Data Science degree.
She entered her first class, Computer Programming Foundations for Data Science, with no background in computer science or technology, but a strong desire to learn.
“I was completely out of my league, but I was just so just determined to figure it out,” says Sanders. “It’s just something that I really want to do. So, I’m really putting the effort into making sure I’m doing it and doing it well.”
Sanders is also naturally super organized, a trait that helps balance her coursework with her job and personal life demands. But she also had tremendous help from her professors.
“The support from my professors has been really critical,” says Sanders. “They are energetic about their subject and every time I contact them about an assignment they respond quickly and are helpful. They have really made it a phenomenal experience.”
Sanders has pursued opportunities outside of Meharry to strengthen her background in data science.
In the Spring of 2022, she participated in the HerWill Datathon, a competition preceded by four weeks of data science basic workshops on machine learning, databases, data scrubbing, and data science opportunities with some of the top industry leaders in innovation, business, and technology from local, national, and international arenas.
“Data science requires a lot of practice in order to master it. I try to take advantage of every available opportunity, and it was great to network with women from all over the world,” says Sanders.
Then in the summer, she became a recipient of the Beacon of Hope Summer Fellowship at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research.
The Beacon of Hope Summer Fellowship is a 10-week, paid summer program for 17 Historically Black Medical School students to learn drug discovery, data analytics and clinical research practices. Dr. Qingguo Wang, professor of computer science and data science, nominated Sanders for the fellowship. She quickly saw it as a valuable opportunity.
“I wanted to get first-hand experience in the biomedical field. I feel this is extremely beneficial for second career students like myself to help with the transition and pivot into a new career,” says Sanders.
Sander’s fellowship included an internship in biostatistics where she worked closely with three mentors who are senior biostatisticians at Novartis.
She gained hands-on experience with some truly meaningful work.
“We provided an exploratory analysis of data for principal clinical investigators who are oncologists specializing in pancreatic cancer,” says Sanders. “We then collaborated with them to determine what types of information would be useful in their research and clinical trials.”
The experience also opened her eyes to a new potential career path.
“My health care background was really helpful as I already understand most of the terminology in the clinical trials,” says Sanders. “I really like the idea of combining my new skills in data and statistics with my background to pursue drug development and the pharmaceutical industry.”
Serving testimony to her unending desire to learn, the programming that once challenged Sanders so much now provides her the most joy in data science.
“I think it’s fun. It’s constant problem solving and challenging,” says Sanders. It is really rewarding when you get your code to run. So, it’s just like the gratification of figuring out a puzzle.”