Lead(H)er: Catherine Richards, Vice President of Analytics and Scientific Engagement at BHE

February 6, 2019

Lead(H)er: Catherine Richards, Vice President of Analytics and Scientific Engagement at BHE

Catherine Richards knew academia wasn’t a place she would spend her entire career, but the nearly 10 years she spent in that world did a lot to prepare her for a career in healthcare analytics.

She earned her master’s degree and a doctorate in epidemiology at Columbia University, where she conducted research, taught classes, and created courses of her own.

“When I was a graduate student, I obsessed with methods,” Richards said. “I didn’t care about the therapeutic area I was working in as much as I enjoyed figuring out, is this the right method for the right question?”

Thanks to her background, Richards is no stranger to teaching, programming, and technology. As a graduate student in epidemiology, she was required to learn at least one statistical programming language. Now, Richards is a programming polyglot, with experience in SAS, R, Stata, SPSS, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, D3, and of course IHD. She’s self-taught in many of the programming languages she learned.

“It’s like any language,” Richards said. “Once you know one programming language, it’s easier to learn the others.”

At the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center, Richards helped work on an oncology informatics platform with a local software company. “The project was probably no more than 20% of my job, but I loved it. I loved combining technology with science to improve the understanding of research and make it more efficient and transparent,” Richards said. So, in her spare time, she built a prototype for a phone app to help researchers collect out-of-pocket expenses for cancer care more efficiently than the classic pen-and-paper method.

After Fred Hutch, she spent a short time at another healthcare analytics company, before accepting a position at Boston Health Economics (BHE), where she serves as the company’s Vice President of Analytics and Scientific Engagement. Now, she’s using her teaching and programming skills to help BHE continue its success. BHE is a financially-secure company, as it’s been around for more than 20 years, but because of the success of IHD, it is also a rapidly-expanding company with a start-up atmosphere and a lot of room for professional growth opportunities.

Catherine Richards at work

When she began at BHE, Richards and her team worked to implement database consulting studies and to provide instruction and support to customers using BHE’s proprietary Instant Health Data (IHD) platform. When traditional programming tools weren’t able to handle the large amounts of healthcare data BHE was analyzing on a daily basis, the company developed IHD as an internal replacement. Since then, BHE has licensed the product, which is widely used throughout the healthcare industry.

Richards’ team at BHE initially consisted of just two other people. Since then, the team has grown to 12, and Richards is enjoying the challenge of managing her team during this growth period.

“What’s most important to me is constantly improving as a manager and leader to make sure that my team is running effectively and feeling fulfilled in their work,” she said. “I also work very hard to nurture a team-oriented, collaborative environment. One where the better we all do as a team the more we all grow and benefit individually.”

She’s also dedicated to creating a team with varied backgrounds and experiences. While it’s a common perception to think candidates with data science or computer science backgrounds may be a good fit for her team, Richards finds value in looking to schools of public health for the next wave of researchers and analysts to join her team. “I think epidemiologists, biostatisticians and health economists have an important role to play in this era of big data as many of them understand the importance of causal inference, something lacking in many data science backgrounds.”

Richards isn’t too focused on the future beyond helping BHE grow as a company, choosing instead to keep her attention on the present challenges and opportunities she and her team find along the way. “I think my big, long-term goal is to stay happy and continue to feel like I’m doing meaningful work,” she said.

Rapid Fire Questions

What do you like to do in your free time?

I walk my dogs a lot and so am always trying to find different parks and trails to take them on. I had a house with a yard in Florida and recently relocated to Boston. So, my dogs now live in a small apartment, and I need to spend a lot of my free time outdoors with them. I also enjoy running, hiking, and biking, especially when the weather is nice.

How do you typically manage your stress?

I find a big part of stress management is making sure I get enough exercise and eat well. It's also about mindfulness. I believe your thinking creates your existence. If you stay in a negative headspace, that's only going to exacerbate your problems. For this reason, I do pay a lot of attention to my general outlook and mindset and work hard to course correct. I'm also a very spiritual person. I grew up in a religion called Religious Science, which is not Scientology and it's not Christian Science. It's kind of like Unitarian Universalist. It has a very positive philosophy, and underlies a lot of my thinking and plays a huge role in helping me handle stress.

How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?

I often drink two cups of coffee and maybe a cup of tea in the afternoon. Except that I just completed a 30-day challenge to not drink any coffee just to prove I could do it. I’m very excited to enjoy some coffee tomorrow.

What’s your favorite spot in the Boston area?

I’ve been to Newburyport a few times, and I love it up there. I find it really charming and want to explore that area a lot more. When I lived in Florida, I lived in a charming little city called Winter Park, and Newburyport reminds me a lot of that place.

What do you consider one of your greatest accomplishments?

When I was a graduate student, I developed a new course called The Principles of Effective Data Visualization. After I left Columbia, I taught it as an adjunct professor before passing it on to other faculties to teach. I’m very proud of the fact that the course is still being taught today.

How does this compare to where you saw yourself 10 years ago?

Ten years ago, I was still in my Ph.D. program, and I definitely wouldn’t have thought that I would have been on the leadership team of a company at the forefront of healthcare analytics.I probably, at that point, would have thought I would still be in academia, as I have always loved teaching.

What’s your advice for college graduates?

Sometimes the best advice anyone will give you is to not follow anyone else’s advice. Try to really understand yourself, because if you’re someone who generally doesn’t like to follow a traditional path, then you shouldn’t. But if you’re someone who really doesn’t like to take risks, then staying on a more traditional career path may be the better choice for you. No one else is going to know what’s right for you.

Since my doctoral program, I’ve been questioned about some of my career choices because they’ve been nontraditional. For example, I did a postdoc with the department chair at Columbia, where we worked on a lot of innovative ideas, but many were not researched focused. Therefore, I had faculty advisors questioning my decisions. However, I knew I wanted to work on ideas that excited me, such as our data bytes website where we published weekly data visualizations explaining important public health issues. I also co-wrote a grant to expand educational programs at Columbia. These were very non-traditional things for a postdoc position, but I stuck to my guns and did what I knew worked for me. I’ve never been someone who was excited by following in others footsteps, and it’s worked out very well for me.

Samantha Costanzo Carleton is a Contributor to VentureFizz. You can follow her on Twitter @smcstnz.
Images courtesy of Catherine Richards and BHE