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Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry

Dr Emma Atakpa

Meet Dr Emma Atakpa, Postdoctoral Data Scientist at the Centre for Cancer Prevention within the Wolfson Institute, who talks about her fascinating work developing models to predict risk of breast cancer. 

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1. Please could you talk to us about your work as a postdoc researcher and what your research area is?  

I am a Postdoctoral Data Scientist at the Centre for Cancer Prevention, working on a Breast Cancer Now-funded project developing models to predict risk of breast cancer by oestrogen-receptor subtype and tumour aggressiveness. The work builds upon a state-of-the-art breast cancer risk model (Tyrer-Cuzick) developed by our research team. The aim is to improve models for assessing risk of breast cancer in order to help progression towards risk-stratified breast cancer screening, whereby prevention and screening are personalised to a woman’s risk of developing the disease. The project also aims to evaluate the benefits and harms of risk-stratified screening based on these models. Prior to my postdoc, I completed my PhD in Medical Statistics with the same research group, similarly looking at breast cancer prevention and risk, but with a focus on mammographic density. My work explored how we can use mammograms collected over time to improve breast cancer risk prediction and to signal whether a woman is responding to risk-reducing interventions such as weight loss or preventive endocrine therapy. 

I have a background in Mathematics and Statistics, so my research is non-clinical. This means that I spend most of my day on a computer, either analysing data, coding, writing analysis plans, drafting manuscripts, or reading up on new research and methodology. I mainly code using R or Stata, but I am currently learning additional programming languages such as C++ and Python. I also provide statistical support for the wider medical school, including teaching statistics for MSc modules, working as an Independent Statistician for the SIZOMUS clinical trial, organising the Wolfson Institute Statisticians’ seminars, coordinating the UK Covid and Gynaecological Cancer Study and analysing Covid-19 ethnicity and equity data for Barts Health NHS Trust. My work has been great for opening up opportunities to collaborate with a wide range of researchers in the UK, USA, and Australia.


2. After completing your PhD in 2019, you worked at the University of Western Australia as a visiting researcher. How long were you there for and what was the experience like? How do Australian universities differ from UK universities?  

I worked at the University of Western Australia from January to March 2020. I was due to stay for another month, but unfortunately, I had to leave early to avoid travel restrictions due to Covid-19 (I was lucky enough to fly home on the penultimate flight from Perth!). I had an amazing time over there, working on some interesting mammographic density projects and meeting a lovely group of colleagues. The work is still ongoing, so hopefully there will be opportunity for me to return when the borders reopen. The research visit came about after I presented at a conference in Melbourne the previous year and I met my soon-to-be manager and her team. It was a great opportunity for me to collaborate with the team as I’d admired their work whilst doing my PhD. I think Australian universities are quite similar to UK universities, with the main difference being the weather - people tended to start work earlier and finish up earlier to make the most of the sunny evenings at the beach or by the river. 
3. Tell us a bit about your educational and training background and what advice would you give to a student wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Before starting my PhD at Queen Mary University of London, I graduated from the University of Sussex with an integrated master’s degree (MMath) in Mathematics with Economics. I’d always been interested in Mathematics and Science, and I’d considered a career in Medicine before realising that I would miss Maths too much. I was excited to know that I could integrate both in the multidisciplinary field of Medical Statistics. 

If I could give any advice to students wanting to follow this career path, I would say that it’s important to do what is right for you. Make the most of seminars and workshops on career development because these can be useful for demonstrating that career paths don’t have to follow a single formula. I would also advise students to get involved with extra-curricular activities because these can be great opportunities for networking, gaining soft skills, and being a part of important initiatives. Personally, I am passionate about equality in both academia and the wider society, and I previously sat on the Athena SWAN Committee for the school of Medicine, as well as volunteering as a STEM ambassador for school visits to the Centre of the Cell. I am always keen to be involved in Equality Diversity and Inclusion initiatives and I believe it is important for students from all backgrounds to be able to follow the career path of their choosing.