From Small Organisms to Small Multiples: Mitch Lee’s Journey to Tessellation
An Academic Start
My journey to Tessellation began with a proclivity I’ll confess: I’m a bit of a germophile…academically, that is. Since I first peered through the lens of a microscope to watch rotifers eat bacteria in a drop of water from the pond behind my high school, I’ve been intrigued and humbled by the power of microbes—they’re the oldest organisms on earth, and so small, but still profoundly affect all life. So, I studied microbiology in undergrad and worked after graduating as a postbaccalaureate research fellow at the NIH, where I studied how the bacteria that cause Legionnaires disease infect human lung cells.
At the time, I thought that I wanted a career as an academic medical microbiology researcher. But while the bacteria were interesting, the rest of the work wasn’t fulfilling. Working long-term to publish one paper without being able to see it translate into an impact on the world just didn’t motivate me. It’s not that I thought the science was unimportant. I’ll defend it always—without work like it, we’d all be sick a lot more). Instead, I realized I personally wasn’t in the right place.
The question became: where is the right place?
Pivoting in Public Health
As the end of my fellowship approached, I took inventory of what I did enjoy about the work, hoping to find an answer. Two aspects stood out. I liked the process of collecting, preparing, and analyzing data, especially for the organization and observational skills the task requires. I also liked communicating the outcomes of my work. I would gladly spend hours upon hours making and improving effective visuals, and then feel rewarded when those visuals attracted attention and drove conversations with other researchers at presentations and poster sessions.
So, I decided to venture into the world of public health and train to become an epidemiologist. That career seemed to offer what I was looking for: lots of data, lots of analysis, lots of communication, and lots of impact. To be fair, entering that field also seemed doable given my background. Fortunately, offer those things public health does. Every lecture, assignment, and project for my master’s degree focused intensely on data and communication. It felt right. I just needed to figure out what my specific role should be.
When I joined an HIV research lab at Emory for my practicum, I got a hint. Admittedly, I found the position by chance…and, honestly, out of desperation. The COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring of my program’s first year and completely decimated not one, but two opportunities I had lined up to fulfill my practicum requirement. So, with no luck after an entire summer of searching, and with panic setting in as I watched the deadline to obtain a position barrel towards me, I reached out to one of my professors, begging for any opportunity. I’ll be forever grateful that he came through and connected me with a medical doctor studying how to improve the prescription of HIV drugs in South Africa who needed a data manager.
A data manager? It didn’t sound like what I had in mind. But, with no other choice, I accepted. Turns out, I adored the job. I loved to sit quietly and code away in R. I was already doing it for hours on end for my thesis work, but still couldn’t get enough. I also enjoyed the organizational demands of the jobs: getting the data clean, organized, and ready-to-use with concise, efficient, and well-documented code. That process and I resonated. Most importantly, I also found fulfillment in enabling a dozen other researchers to write and submit multiple research papers in just a few months.
That sense of fulfillment was pivotal for me. Whereas I had felt limited in my capacity to make an impact as a research fellow working to write a single academic paper in two years, I now felt empowered by my ability to empower other researchers to write many. Better still, I now had findings from multiple papers to communicate, and I knew that communication was for doctors, hospital administrators, and other care-giving decision-makers who, every day, impact people’s health and lives.
My understanding of where to go next solidified after that “Aha!” moment. I wanted to work in a role where I can position data to be used and help develop effective communication of that data and the insights they provide. Most importantly, I also wanted my role to be to help others do that as well. That’s why Tessellation caught my eye as I scrolled through LinkedIn. Right off the bat, the company emphasized a desire to drive data enablement. As I read more about it, I became certain that not only are Tessellations goals in that regard aligned with my own, but its people are thinking about how to achieve them better than I am.
I wanted to be a part of it. So, armed with a couple of online certifications in R, Python, SQL, and Tableau, a story of “Why me” that I believed in, and the best go-getter attitude I could muster, I replied to Tessellation’s call for applications to be an analyst.
Now, here I am—learning, doing, delivering, and engaging with many people from many backgrounds with many skills from many organizations…and totally loving to live it! I get to see my work help others to help themselves really use their data and communicate what they find, and how those feats translate to better-performing individuals, teams, and organizations. It feels like I’ve found a place to do the work I want to do and make the impact I want to make. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
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