June 27, 2019 / All Stories

Scientists Rock! The ice cube that launched a career

How early adventures in science blazed a trail for young researcher-in-the-making Jennifer Van Camp.

Jennifer Van Camp, Ph.D., director, information research, AbbVie, gets ready for a swim.

Scientists Rock! is a monthly Q&A where we pull an AbbVie scientist out of the lab to hear what makes them tick. This month, we chat with Jennifer Van Camp, Ph.D., director, information research, AbbVie.

What do two energetic educators, a batch of melting ice cubes and a brush with high school chemistry have in common? The genesis of Jennifer Van Camp’s career in data science.

Tell us the story of how you fell in love with science.

I still vividly remember my middle school science teacher, Mrs. J, who presented us with a seemingly simple assignment one fateful Friday afternoon: “How do ice cubes cool your drink?” I went home and immediately pulled out the World Book Encyclopedia and started reading about the melting process of ice. The fact that ice absorbed heat rather than transmitting “coldness” made instant sense, and I found it fascinating. Little did I know that this would be my first lesson in thermodynamics!

What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was young, I always thought I would grow up to be a teacher. In fact, I used to homeschool my stuffed animals in math. Once I got to high school, I thought about becoming a physician (like most of my classmates). However, doing the simple blood typing experiment in biology class quickly made me realize that working with blood was not my life’s calling. Luckily, I had the most amazing chemistry teacher for two years. Mr. Z always made our class exciting with hands-on experiments and story problems that required mathematical solutions. Since no one in my family had any connection to (or interest in) science, he took the time to tell me about college majors in the physical sciences. Even when I chose to major in chemistry, I wasn’t sure where that would lead. Everything became crystal clear when I took my first medicinal chemistry course. The fact that I could, one day, design molecules that influence complex biological mechanisms was transformational.

I understand your work involves information research, or data science. For us non-scientific people, can you explain what exactly a data scientist’s job entails?

The work of a data scientist can be compared to building the cockpit for a modern jet airliner. Pilots need to integrate, in real time, large amounts of diverse data: altitude, air speed, vertical speed, heading, inclination, fuel and power levels, and more. The cockpit is the ‘control center’ where these data are served up to the pilot so that decisions can be made for a successful flight. As data scientists, my team builds cockpits for our research and development department – integrating and delivering all relevant data in the most appropriate format. This allows our company to make better, faster decisions on our medicines and for our patients.

If we were to ask your family what it is that you do, what would they say?

My husband has postgraduate degrees in engineering and analytical finance – so while he may not understand all the life sciences, he certainly has an appreciation for data modeling and informatics. My kids would probably say that I make medicines that help people – and that I use a computer.

I hear you are an avid swimmer. Can you please explain how your passion started?

I am, and always have been, an avid swimmer. My mom is deathly afraid of the water; thus, she insisted my brother and I have swimming lessons from a very young age. What started as a life skill ended up becoming my passion. I joined my first swim team when I was 6 years old. As a member of the swim team, I could practice one hour before the pool opened to the public – so, I would literally be at the pool every day from sunrise until dinner time. Whereas I used to swim for speed, I began to build endurance by the time I was in college. Even in graduate school, I began every morning with a swim before heading to the lab. I try to swim 2,500-2,800 meters a day – it is the perfect way to relax and clear my mind.

If you could talk to the 10-year-old version of yourself, what would you tell yourself about your career?

Every day I get to work with very creative and smart people to solve difficult data problems which advance science to help treat disease. My team takes a lot of data and transforms it into meaningful visualizations and applications that drive efficient decisions. We also use our data to fuel predictions and help our colleagues find information. Plus, we can build robots!

What’s one thing that you think is surprising about your job?

There is a ‘data science’ joke which says an average data scientist spends 80 percent of their time cleaning data and the other 20 percent of their time complaining about the need to clean data. This is funny to any data scientist because they live and breathe this! When we build dashboards or models, the data is coming in from so many different systems around the globe that it can never be used straight away. Most people don’t appreciate the significant amount of time spent accessing the data, harmonizing the data, and analyzing the data quality before a single visualization can be created or an algorithm can be built.

What is your advice to kids interested in a career like yours?

Follow your curiosity by reading and learning about things that interest you. Find any opportunity to acquire new skills, as your career may take you off the beaten path. Embrace technology that can help you think critically and produce information accurately.

What was the last science-related movie/TV show/book you saw? What appealed to you about it? How accurate/close to reality was it?

The other night I was watching Apollo 13 with my husband and three boys. As a scientist, there is so much I relate to in this movie. First, I enjoy the collaborative spirit of the scientists – everyone knows the problem and realizes it is too big to be solved by any individual. The NASA engineers and astronauts are required to work as a cohesive team to ensure a solution. Second, it highlights how important it is to continue to learn, evolve and strive for further breakthroughs. Lastly, it shows how something as significant as sending humans into space in 1970 was done with minimal computational support (their guidance system had 1,300 times less processing power than an iPhone 5s). Now that we are embarking on quantum computing, it makes me wonder what is yet to come.

What keeps you coming to work every day?

Unfortunately, everyone knows someone whose life was altered by a devastating disease. My brother’s wife lost her battle with metastatic breast cancer one year ago. My father has a brother and a sister whose lives were affected by Alzheimer’s disease. I have seen firsthand how distressing these diseases are. Every new insight we create can lead to the next breakthrough for someone’s mother, husband, child or friend. We can change lives; therefore, we must never quit.

In your opinion, why does science rock?

Science enhances our understanding of the world around us, uncovers even more things we don’t yet understand, and paves the way for future capabilities to learn even more.

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Jaquelin Finley
Email: jaquelin.finley@abbvie.com
Call: +1 847-937-3998
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