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Career Perspectives: A Conversation with Karl Karu

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In this latest edition of the Career Perspectives series, we are excited to introduce our readers to Karl Karu, Senior Statistical Programmer in Functional Service Provider (FSP)  at Cytel. Karl is based in Estonia and joined Cytel in September 2023. Join us as we delve into his refreshing and enthusiastic perspective on statistical programming and the skills it requires, the importance of communication with sponsors, and a work-life balance when working from home.

Can you give us a little background on your career and your professional journey so far? What made you choose a career as a Statistical Programmer after getting a master’s in chemistry? 

Half-way pursuing my PhD in Chemistry in 2019, I decided to leave academia to do something that felt impactful in the real world. The pharmaceutical industry is nothing if not impactful! I’ve always enjoyed working with numbers and data, so statistical programming seemed like a good fit—combining my skills with a job that benefits mankind directly. Having limited statistical knowledge at first, I was quite nervous, but that feeling quickly dissipated as I met many successful programmers from diverse educational backgrounds, ranging from physics to agriculture.

 

What do you like best about your role and why did you choose to work for Cytel?

I am a Senior Statistical Programmer in FSP, where I support the projects of one of our sponsors. Having prior contract research organization (CRO) experience, where I worked with a lot of clients, I thoroughly enjoy the stability and structure of working with a single dedicated sponsor.

In my role, I juggle multiple studies, deadlines, and responsibilities. However, as these are all in collaboration with one sponsor, the studies are built similarly, using the same tools and standards. This allows me to focus on the subject matter and minimize the time spent on trivial tasks. It makes my work so much more rewarding and efficient.

I chose Cytel because it’s known for its statistical software and subject matter expertise, as well as its trusted ability to conduct exploratory analyses and take on more holistic responsibility for clinical trial processes, as my team does. It provides me with unique and exciting opportunities. Additionally, the company is large enough to have solid processes and functions in place, but not too large as to lose its identity and culture.

 

In your opinion, which skills are most important to be a Statistical Programmer? 

People often regard programming as 3D chess, where one must be a computer genius to excel. That could not be further from the truth. Of course, one needs to learn a programming language such as SAS or R, but writing code is just a small part of the job. 

I spend significantly more time observing data, reading different source materials, and communicating with other study team members than writing code. Once you understand the aim of the work and are familiar with the data, programming becomes just an afterthought. That understanding is gained through communication and the ability to cross-reference materials such as protocols, analysis plans, and industry standards. Therefore, good communication and personal documentation/organization skills are incredibly beneficial to one’s success as an aspiring statistical programmer.

 

Have you had any mentors at Cytel? If so, how have they contributed to your professional and personal growth?

I have recently settled into my role at Cytel, having joined in late 2023, but Steven Thacker, Vice President of FSP, deserves a mention in this regard. During my interview process, we happened to meet at the PSI 2023 conference in London. He connected me with a biostatistician, so I could talk about my future position and make a good proactive impression on our sponsor.

Our FSP team consists of incredibly helpful people such as Steven, who like to share ideas and successes.

 

Could you share a project you have worked on that you feel the proudest of, and why? 

Every project I currently work on is a learning experience, cementing my understanding of our workflow and honing my efficiency, but we have not yet reached pivotal milestones in these studies.

My proudest past professional experience was co-authoring an article investigating the relationship between health-related quality of life and overall survival in patients with advanced renal cell carcinoma. I was humbled to work alongside the key opinion leaders in an interdisciplinary team and produce evidence that aids with the care and treatment of renal cancer patients. 

 

As an employee who works full-time from home, what are your strategies to keep a healthy work-life balance? Do you feel supported in this by Cytel?

I absolutely love the home office. I save time, reduce my carbon footprint, and can enjoy bird song instead of car horns in the morning. Cytel, and by extension the FSP team sponsor, fully support a healthy work-life balance in my experience. Except for an occasional late-afternoon call with the US team members, I do not work outside my chosen business hours or even feel any pressure to open my laptop. 

One habit that has helped me immensely is to take an extra moment during the day to review my upcoming deadlines and add relevant calendar reminders. It helps me focus during business hours, and I can rest assured I have not forgotten anything when powering off my laptop for the day.

 

What are your main interests outside of work?

As a proud father of a two-year-old daughter, my current main interest is sleeping. On weekends, we sometimes go hiking together. We live in Estonia, where there are many swamps and bogs with well-developed nature trails and unique nature to enjoy. 

 

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