When Emily Mitchell was a senior in college, she made a bold decision. Fittingly, some might consider it a student’s “nuclear option”—the most drastic response that can be taken in a particular situation. She was changing her major, even though she was just a few credit hours shy of completing her program and earning her degree.
For Emily, it was unquestionably the right move.
For the past several semesters, she had been working towards her bachelor’s degree in Penn State University’s prestigious Nuclear Engineering program. Penn State is a public research university in University Park, PA. With a functioning nuclear reactor on campus—the longest operating licensed nuclear reactor in the United States—the university has long been at the forefront of nuclear education and research.
Emily discovered early on in her college career that she had an aptitude for nuclear science. She took an introductory class to meet a science requirement and quickly learned that her scientific mind could grasp this highly unique field of study. It incorporates diverse principles of science, engineering, and mathematics, and she found that she was able to comprehend and solve its complex engineering problems.
Emily became one of two females in a group of 12 students working their way through the challenging Nuclear Engineering program together. They often met for classes in local bars, discussing fission and fusion, thermodynamics, reactor design and physics, chemical principles, and radiation detection and measurement.
While looking at the world at the atomic level, Emily learned something important about herself—she did not want to be a nuclear engineer. It’s common for nuclear engineers to work in nuclear power generation, and Emily did not want to spend her career behind locked, guarded fences in a power plant.
She realized her calling was to pursue a career where she would be able to use her skills and knowledge to directly and personally help people.
Growing up with a father who is a doctor, Emily saw firsthand how those in healthcare have the power to genuinely touch people’s lives. She had a desire to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor herself, but she also knew the challenges of achieving a work-life balance with the demands of a doctor’s schedule.
Knowing there were many other opportunities to give back and help people in the healthcare field, she felt she could use her foundation of scientific skills and talents, coupled with the knowledge and education she had gained in the Nuclear Engineering program, to start pursuing a career in nuclear medicine. Unfortunately, Penn State did not offer a degree in nuclear medicine or biomedical engineering.
In typical fashion, Emily took it upon herself to innovate and come up with a solution. She suggested that the university allow her to apply credits she had already earned in the engineering program with other relevant science classes that would prepare her for a career working with radiopharmaceuticals to diagnose and treat diseases. She was essentially tailoring her own personal degree program in nuclear medicine.
The university said no.
Still knowing what was best for her, Emily withdrew from the Nuclear Engineering program and went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in Science from Penn State.
It turns out Emily had a keen foresight and was a little bit ahead of her time because, ironically, a couple of years after she graduated, Penn State began offering a degree in biomedical engineering. And the other eleven students that were in the Nuclear Engineering program with her all ended up working in nuclear power plants.
Falling into Clinical Research
For many new graduates, finding the job that aligns perfectly with their degree doesn’t always happen immediately. Emily was preparing to start her first job at a bank—a completely different world from a clinical environment—when her grandmother happened to send her a newspaper ad for a job with a small clinical research organization (CRO).
Emily applied for the position and was called in for an interview just days before beginning her new job at the bank. Very interested in the job—where she knew she would be able to make a real impact and have a personal hand in delivering healthcare to patients—she had no choice but to tell her interviewers that if they were interested in hiring her, she would need to know now. It was a very bold move to take with potential new bosses.
They hired her on the spot.
This began Emily’s career journey into the world of clinical research. Working for a small CRO allowed her to learn and experience hands-on most every role within a CRO. This provided her with end-to-end visibility of the entire drug development continuum and a comprehensive, intimate understanding of the inner workings of clinical research and all related roles and functions. This knowledge, experience, and expertise would take her far.
Wearing it Well
Emily’s journey of caring for patients and touching lives would lead her to PRA Health Sciences. PRA’s Biometrics department delivers world-class services for clients on a global scale, from development through to market. Biometrics is a team of professionals with specialized therapeutic expertise that helps clients design and collect clinical trial data, and helps them analyze and understand this data in order to make critical project decisions for both small- and large-scale clinical studies. Emily has been a trusted leader in the Biometrics organization and has served in a number of essential roles since 2013. She is currently Executive Director in Biometrics, leading the Biometrics team’s digital and technology strategy in incorporating innovative, cutting-edge technology solutions in clinical trials.
One thing about Emily—she’s always looking for the easy way to do things.
But that’s not a slight on her ambition or her work ethic at all. From the very beginning of her career, Emily has been passionate about treating and caring for patients. She works incredibly hard to make it easier for patients to take part in clinical trials.
Traditionally, patients could find themselves in a difficult position when participating in trials. It’s common to hear patients, who are often feeling bad and extremely tired, talk about the burden these trials can have on their life, both physically and mentally. Today, through innovation and modern technology, there is a patient-friendly way to fully and accurately conduct trials without the burdens of participation, and PRA is leading the way. With her expertise and her compassion for patients, Emily is one of its staunchest advocates.
Wearable devices such as activity trackers and sensors allow patients to participate in a trial literally from the comfort and convenience of their own home. Tests and tasks that were previously limited to a physician’s office or clinical site can now be performed virtually.
State-of-the-art wearable technology collects raw patient data in real-time, and allows healthcare professionals to continuously monitor symptoms and vital signs such as heart rate, respiratory data, exercise, and movement levels, all while patients go about their daily routines. The real-time data reporting and alerts also allow researchers to identify potential risks and spot any red flags early on and rapidly intervene if needed.
“Getting data from wearables earlier gives a better signal detection for what’s really going on with these patients,” Emily says. “The physician can see that patients are struggling, and intervene earlier, instead of reaching the stage where patients have a significant adverse event and jeopardize their safety in the long run.”
Emily was instrumental in PRA’s revolutionary partnership with healthcare giant Janssen Pharmaceuticals, launching the historic first-ever drug approval trial using a completely decentralized, mobile design in early 2020. Previous mobile trials had been observational and had no drug intervention. As the world’s first fully virtual trial to support approval of a new drug indication, patients using smart, wearable technology participated entirely from home, without ever having to go to the hospital or attend a doctor’s appointment.
A Palpable Energy
PRA is leading the way in transforming clinical research and making clinical trials more accessible for all patients through technology-focused and innovative approaches to research.
With leaders like Emily at the forefront, an exciting future awaits. She has made an impact on countless lives throughout her career with a pioneering spirit and an energy that comes, not from splitting atoms, but from a true passion for delivering life-saving treatments to patients, free from burdens and inconveniences.
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