Matthew Wiener | Executive Director
Department: R&D Information and Technology
Education:: B.S. Mathematics, MIT, B.S. Humanities (Russian), MIT, Ph.D. Mathematics, University of Chicago
Career stage: Late
What do you do?
I lead a team that investigates and models data, writing (and testing and documenting!) software to perform analyses and simulations. I spend a lot of time discussing results and asking questions to make sure we all understand what’s been done and what it means. I also discuss with colleagues in research and development (R&D) what kinds of problems they are facing with organizing or using data, and what kinds of models could be useful to them. Most rewarding is when something I’ve worked on affects human health; one of the things I’m most proud of is when an analysis I did as part of a team helped clarify some issues encountered while making a particular vaccine and made it available earlier than otherwise would have been the case. Least rewarding, but necessary, is budgeting.
What types of skills do you use?
Most important is the inclination to build simplified representations that capture important aspects of the problem at hand, not any particular method (which you can always learn). It’s also very important to understand the right level of detail when communicating with different audiences. Sometimes a very technical audience will want to hear all about the details, but more often, people want to see some evidence that your approach is reasonable (for example, can reproduce known results), what you recommend be done next, and why.
How are applied mathematics and/or computational science important to what you do?
Models analyzed mathematically and computationally are used to speed every part of drug development, from deciding which biological targets to pursue, to choosing molecules, to designing clinical trials.
What are the pros and/or cons of your profession/job?
Pro: My work is aimed at curing or preventing disease, which is both inherently worthwhile and interesting.
Con: Occasionally, changes in company priorities require that you stop working on something you’re interested in (but academics can also lose grants).
Does your job offer flexibility?
I’ve worked mostly in large companies, which offer a lot of flexibility in various ways. Most notably, I’ve had the freedom to investigate and work in many different areas related to developing vaccines and medicines.
What career path did you take to your current position?
I worked briefly in consulting after getting my Ph.D. That was a bad fit for me, and I was lucky enough to find a post doc in computational neuroscience at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). While there, I saw an ad on the R mailing list looking for people working with large biological data sets and wound up at Merck Research Laboratories in the Applied Mathematics and Computer Science Department. I’ve worked in the pharmaceutical industry ever since. Later Merck decided to open an IT center in Prague, and I was asked to hire the Mathematical Modeling and Analytics group there. After building up that group, I took a job in Switzerland, still working on the border between IT and research.
Was your career path well planned or a result of taking opportunities as they arose?
My path was almost entirely unplanned. Even changes from one topic to another inside a company have often arisen from conversations leading to a collaboration—that’s how I got involved in vaccine manufacturing. And I wasn’t planning on moving to Prague or Switzerland (and my wife certainly wasn’t), but we both ended up loving it.
What advice would you give to someone pursuing a similar degree or profession?
Take some classes in application areas you’re interested in: biology, epidemiology, finance, whatever. Having a bit of background in the substantive field you would like to apply mathematics in is a big advantage, although you can also pick things up as you go along.
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