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The Journey from Army to Science & Healthcare

I’m often asked how I ended up here. “Ended up”, as though the journy is complete. It isn’t, as I most certainly have not arrived at my destination.

I am often asked how I went from being in the military to working in biotechnology and digital health. As cliché as it may sound, it stems from childhood.

Both of my parents were in the IT field. A room in our home possessively held an IBM computer, dot matrix printer, and a shoe box of floppy disks. I couldn’t tell you exactly what either of them did at the time, other than my mom worked at EDS. It was still owned by Ross Perot at the time. My dad worked for the Dallas Morning News, in their technology department. As an adult I now appreciate how crazy-intelligent both of my parents were.

My mother taught me how to type. Her fingers would fly across the keyboard with rapid speed, and she never glanced down. I was fascinated by what that computer could do, or more accurately, what my parents made it do.

When I was ten years old, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was the 80’s and the wealth of information about breast cancer was not available then as it is now. My mom was told she had two years to live, but lived for five more years out of sheer will and determination. As I got older I became aware of my own risk for breast cancer, finally concluding that my mother had no at-risk behavior believed to lead to breast cancer. I have taken the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 biomarker test, and tested negative for both. This created more questions than answers about the ‘why’ behind disease and sparked my fascination with healthcare, biomarkers, DNA, phenotype, genotype, and more.

At 15 I didn’t realize biotechnology was a field. I liked healthcare but had an aversion to people and social interaction (more on that in a different post), so becoming a treating physician in healthcare was not in my cards. I went to college at 16 and was academically gifted but socially inept. I needed a change, desperately. I had no friends at the university I attended; I was incredibly lonely with my mother’s absence. I have other family, but most weren’t present. Those that were present, I shut out or wouldn’t connect. My family has always considered me ‘weird’ and ‘different’, so there was presence without closeness. I recognize most of that was my fault. Sure, my grades were exceptional, I was in the honors program taking Latin and advanced courses. Yet, I felt completely lost and alone, angry at the world, at God, and at life. My mother was my rock, and no one has understood me, known me, the way she did — then or now. I was invisible, and when I was seen by others I didn’t understand their intent and I would shut down and shut out. At 17 years old I needed a challenge and something to redirect my focus and energy. In 1996 I saw all four branches of the military in the student center one day, and decided to join the Army on whim. Literally — on a whim.

It was one of the best decisions I’ve made in life.

Naturally I tested high enough to have the choice between Intelligence or Technology. Because I was told by the Recruiter that an Intelligence position would consist of staring at pictures and clippings, then writing reports, I chose Technology without giving it too much thought. I excelled in the military. It provided the structure I craved. It also gave me leadership training beyond what you would find in civilian life. Service-oriented leadership. The technology training and list of IT Certifications is too long to list, but I earned as many as I could. From Microsoft to Cisco to cyber security, I was all-in. In the meantime, I always volunteered and requested training under anything healthcare related as a ‘secondary duty’. I became a Combat Lifesaver and the side of me that was interested in science and healthcare was satiated a bit. I ended my military career as a Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CW2) in 2016.

The Army and Army Reserves paid for all of my degrees. With almost every degree I put a healthcare spin on it. My bachelor’s is in Information Technology with a specialization in security, in-line with my MOS (military occupational specialty) at the time. But then I earned my first Master’s in Health Information Systems where my research project identified gaps in EHR implementation. My second Master’s in Technology Management highlights my research project focused on applying AI and machine learning to point-of-care diagnostics. My third Masters is in Public Health so I could understand population healthcare, healthcare policy and healthcare gaps and disparities. Finally, my doctorate is in Biomedical Informatics where I research precision medicine and its application in managing and treating patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Technology underscores all these interests, and I feel incredibly grateful for the path I’ve been on.

Had it not been for the military, I would not have the technology foundation to pursue these other interests in biotechnology and healthcare. Ultimately, it’s my parents that got the entire journey started. I would like to think my mom is proud, but I would give everything I have to hear her say it, or for her to fuss at me about anything at all, to tell me the latest book she read, or to feel her kiss on my forehead.

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