October 29, 2015

ENVS Blog: From Liberal Arts Student to Data Analyst

Megan Coggeshall (’12) tells the story of how she ended up as a data analyst in global health research after graduating Lewis & Clark College with a degree in Environmental Studies and French Studies.

Megan Coggeshall (’12)

Three months after I graduated from Lewis & Clark with a double major in Environmental Studies and French Studies, I started teaching English at a small elementary and pre-school in northern France. I went to France because I wanted to keep using and improving the French that I learned at Lewis & Clark and while studying abroad my junior year. It also sounded like a fun job, and I really wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do for a career after graduation. During my 10 months there I improved my French, learned about the ch’ti accent and maroilles cheese, and found out that there’s no limit to how many times you can sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with a room full of preschoolers. However, when I came back from France I found myself in the similar situation of only having a vague idea of what I wanted to do next. I knew I was interested in academic research and the social sciences, and I wanted to be able to keep using the French language.

Once the jetlag wore off I began the process of looking for jobs and was soon glad that I had attended the Senior Survival Seminar hosted by the Career Center my senior year, since I left that event with resumes and cover letters ready to go. A couple weeks into my job hunt I was lucky enough to find a job posting for a data analyst position at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. I wasn’t entirely sure what the job of a global health research data analyst entailed, but I was intrigued by the posting, which listed requirements like a social science background, and knowledge of ArcGiS, surveys, and foreign languages. I started my job about a month after returning from France and have been there for a little over 2 years.

While it may not be immediately apparent how an Environmental Studies and French double major translates into global health research, I think a liberal arts background and an interdisciplinary focus have been extremely valuable to my work at IHME. I first started as a Systematic Reviewer, which basically means I was assigned a certain cause of morbidity or mortality, then searched for relevant scholarly articles, and systematically read through all of them for data we could include in our research. This work was mainly done in Excel and I got to use French quite a bit when screening papers for usable data or survey design issues. Fortunately, I had already learned about survey design and data quality issues through a Mellon Foundation summer fellowship I had between my junior and senior years through ENVS, where I helped develop and conduct a survey in the towns around Willapa Bay. After about a year at IHME I moved to my current role as a data analyst. I now use Stata (a statistical programming software like SPSS) almost daily to extract and clean child mortality data from surveys and vital registration systems. I then pull those data into our child mortality model to get estimates of under-5 mortality for about 200 countries and 350 sub-national locations. I usually work on several different kinds of tasks at one time, from researching the quality of data sources to pulling results from our databases to share with researchers, and many of these tasks use tools we learned in ENVS. For example, I’ve used ArcGIS to create maps for faculty presentations, created flow charts to explain processes to coworkers, and I’ve used Zotero to store citation information from systematic reviews and to add citations to publications. I also think the writing, presentations, posters, and portfolios I created for ENVS projects helped me learn how to organize and synthesize knowledge in a way similar to that needed for my current job in order to explain my work, or to train coworkers.

Overall, I think the interdisciplinary approach of ENVS has been valuable for working in a fast paced environment where flexibility, critical thinking, and a touch of creativity are essential. For those of you interested in global health research or data analysis in an academic setting, I would encourage you to take advantage of research internships – both qualitative and quantitative research will help – and to try studying or working internationally. Feel free to contact me through ENVS if you have any questions!