Giving it All Away: A Conversation with Kunal Sampat
posted: September 13, 2019
“A lot of people think they want to be doctors, but don't see these alternative paths to related and potentially highly satisfying careers, like clinical research.”
In this series, we talk with people in the life sciences that you don't hear much about. These are people whose work is integral to the success of clinical trials and thus to the development and approval of new drugs, therapies, medical devices, and to the progress of digital health.
Kunal Sampat, like so many in the clinical research field, came to his career in a roundabout way.
Even before he was an undergraduate student, Kunal had a desire to help people. He was certain that he would do that through practicing medicine.
"A lot of people think they want to be doctors, but don't see these alternative paths to related and potentially highly satisfying careers, like clinical research."
During his undergrad work he took a course on medical imaging and found himself fascinated by the fact that engineering skills could be used to detect diseases. The seed was planted.
But Kunal still didn't yet recognize that his attention to detail and his logical, data-focused mind suited him for clinical research.
Moving from Medicine to Clinical Research
“My story isn’t unusual, but it’s one you don’t hear that often.”
During his college years, Kunal was not a permanent resident of the US and so struggled to get into med school, even though his undergrad work was completed in the US. It didn’t help that he still had some difficulty with the language and the culture at that time, which contributed to lower MCAT (medical college admission test) scores. They were reasonable, but not top tier. He could still have gotten into med school, and in fact had a couple of good entrance interviews, but he was starting to think that a change of path might be in order.
Around that same time a pediatrician friend pointed out that medicine in the US is driven by insurance companies. Even as an MD, insurance companies tell you what to do and what you can't do. Kunal didn't feel comfortable with that model. "My whole motivation to become a doctor was to help people, and to get them what they needed, but in the US that was going to be complicated by the insurance companies."
Kunal reevaluated. He was good with people and interpersonal skills, and he had a strong drive to help people. His engineering schooling had honed his attention to detail and rigor. What about clinical research?
His first job out of college was at a core lab, one that retained all the medical images collected during the course of a trial. Here he was responsible for the initial assessment of the images before transferring them to the physician. Basically, Kunal was an in-house data manager, ensuring the accuracy and security of the imaging data for clinical trials.
From that first taste of clinical data management Kunal realized he was onto something, and into a career. He moved to Abbott Labs where he spent 12 years, advancing from clinical project management to Senior Manager of Clinical Programs.
This year Kunal moved to Ceribell as Director of Clinical Operations.
And a few years ago, Kunal started, and continues to produce and host his own podcast. He also does some teaching. Hold that thought, because we'll come back to it in a mome
Kunal's Secret Sauce
Kunal notes that clinical data management and project management go hand-in-hand. In order to excel at data management, you have to excel at project management. And this includes people management.
"In all the concern over education and training for this field, I think people often lose sight of the need for strong communication skills. I wake up every day thinking about how I can improve my 'soft' skills and better collaborate with others."
Kunal views communication and people skills as the "secret sauce" that binds education, experience, and expertise to successful data and program management.
"We live in a world where we are constantly dependent on other people for our success, and they are dependent on us for theirs. The only way to make that work is to listen, and understand how teams work, and how people think, and then from that determine how you can meet project goals. This matters whether you are just starting out in an entry level job, or are an MD with several clinical trials under your belt, or you are at the pinnacle of your career."
Giving it all Away
Another interesting aspect to Kunal, which you may have guessed, is his passion for helping, and for making life better.
"I love helping people through what I know, and what I've learned." He continues, "The purpose or goal of life, I think, is to give it all away."
This drive to help surfaces not only in his contributions to clinical research, but also in a desire to teach, and to help people get into the data management field, or progress in their careers.
Remember the podcast we mentioned earlier? Kunal's “Clinical Trial Podcast” has been around for a few years now, and the listener base is continuing to grow. Kunal says, "If there is even one listener benefiting, then that's great, but I also like that it is reaching thousands of people, so that more can find value from what I've created."
The podcast focuses on what it takes to be a best-in-class clinical research professional through interviews with industry experts and other successful clinical research pros. It's a way to learn more about how they got to where they are, what they do differently, and how they are changing the field.
Kunal gets messages from podcast listeners who have gotten their next job through listening to his podcast. "It is great to be able to give people this free resource, at their fingertips, on their phone, that can help them in their career."
Connecting Data and Purpose
The purpose of the life sciences industry as a whole, and of the clinical data analysts and managers within it, is to make life better for people.
Kunal points to how valuable the work of those in the clinical research field is to the patients. It took him a while to recognize this himself, though, because you don't really interact with the patients. "How can you develop an emotional connection to the purpose of your work when you don't see the people it affects?" When he was at Abbott they would have an annual event and bring in a handful of patients to tell their stories, which helped provide that connection to the work.
This connection to the purpose of the work, to the people that the end product will benefit, is something you can cultivate. Kunal suggests a couple of possibilities:
One is to ask the leadership in your company to bring some patients in to tell their stories to the staff, and talk about how the technologies (or therapies or devices) are impacting people in the real world. "This kind of thing had an enormous impact on us at Abbott," says Kunal.
Another option is to be a volunteer in a clinical trial. Kunal is currently participating in a trial himself as a healthy volunteer. "Experiencing clinical research as a patient gives you a great deal of empathy for the patients, both for how they feel in general, and how they experience all the myriad and complex protocols that are thrown at them."
Future for Data Managers
A lot of data management jobs are becoming automated. Computers are smarter and better at things like the data cleaning process. Kunal’s view is that automation can benefit data managers if they are proactive. “If data managers can design EDC (electronic data capture) systems, and automate as much as possible, they are going to continue to be valuable team members. That may make you feel insecure about your job, like you are training your replacement, but I think it's the opposite. You will become the go-to person because of your ability to make things more efficient."
Many people depend on the clinical research professionals, like marketing and commercial teams. When data management is automated, the data gets collected faster, it gets cleaned faster, it means fewer headaches for the clinical trial site, “And people are going to thank you for making the whole process more efficient.”
Data managers have the power to streamline this process; they just need to take ownership and be proactive. "Start small. Whatever pieces you're touching? Automate them!"
Another thing that Kunal recommends to make you a more successful data manager is communication and an ability to collaborate with cross-functional teams. "People need to get along with their colleagues. How can you do that in the most productive fashion? An ability to communicate and collaborate will make you stand out as a data manager."
Automation is really just about eliminating inefficiencies. If data managers can do that by reducing how often the data is touched by people (e.g., written down, transferred into the system, passed on to another group) they can speed up the timeline for getting a drug, therapy, or device approved.
"For example, connecting the EMR (electronic medical record) to the EDC to give you ‘real world’ data, and then going directly to the FDA for approval with that data. There are a few trials that have successfully done that, and I think you are going to see more and more of that in the near future."
Another thing Kunal would like to see in the future is a focus on technologies and methods to help prevent diseases in the first place, and that take the entire person into account.
Getting People into Clinical Research
Another subject that engages Kunal is how to get people into the clinical research industry without the mandatory two years of experience.
It’s a classic catch-22: If you don't have two years of experience, you can't get into clinical research. But how are you going to get the experience?
Kunal recommends for now that you look closely at all your past experience and put any project you worked on that is even remotely medical-related on your resume! Mine previous experiences in college and even earlier; use projects that you volunteered for or that you created on your own. Find the things in your experience that are going to resonate with the potential employer and use them.
He goes on to list his other top strategies for getting into the field:
Use LinkedIn. Reach out to people personally, and don't be afraid of reaching out one-on-one. This is not about spamming people or sending resumes. This is about building meaningful connections. Establish relationships with directors and VPs of data management. Reach out with a desire to help, to be of value to the individual and their organization. Ask for a 10-minute call to find out what they do and how you can be useful.
Call people! Yes, actual phone calls.
Network in person when you can. This sounds counter-intuitive at first, but prioritize attending events that have a fee to attend. Kunal points out that you are much more likely to meet decision makers and top-tier people at these, whereas free events tend to draw mostly other job seekers.
Some organizations that host in-person events include:
- Society for Clinical Data Management (SCDM)
- Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP)
- CBI (events for the pharmaceutical industry in general)
- Exl (events for healthcare and life sciences)
- MAGI World (at least two clinical research conferences in the US
These conferences can be pricey, and often are not near you. One suggestion is to contact the event organizers and offer to volunteer at the conference in exchange for a free pass. Events like these do often use volunteers for smaller tasks, but the worst they can do is say “no”!
Kunal is very encouraging. “Clinical data management is a great career. Even with automation, or perhaps especially with the advent of automation, the field needs more dedicated, well-rounded people!”
Kunal Sampat is Director of Clinical Operations at Ceribell, Inc, and the host of Clinical Trial Podcast. He is a passionate advocate for those who are exploring careers in the clinical research field, including clinical operations and data management. Kunal is also a new dad.