Andy Walsh, PhD, Chief Science Officer
- Doctorate from John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
- Post-Doc at Carnegie Mellon University (in Bio-computation)
- Chief Science Officer and Software Developer for Heath Monitoring
- Science Blogger for InterVarsity Christian fellowship
- Author of "Faith Across the Universe: Parables from Modern Science
“How can we expect the unexpected public health concerns at the Super Bowl?” “What are the
biggest health consequences of power outages following a hurricane?” “Can we predict how
many heroin overdoses will occur in a given zip code next month?” “Which patients visiting the
emergency department actually have the new strain of flu and which ones are just worried by the
news?” “Why can’t we tell sooner when a real-time data feed from a hospital has gone down?”
As the resident scientist for a small public health software company, I get to answer a variety of
I knew early on that I wanted to be a scientist. I was the nerdy kid; I liked facts; I had a knack for
math. I thought it was simply a matter of narrowing down the kind of science. When I was 10 or
11, I read a Discover magazine story about HIV and AIDS and decided I wanted to spare people
from such an insidious infection. Both the intellectual challenge of stopping a virus which
infiltrated the very cells intended to protect us from viruses and the potential for helping so many
people motivated me. For a while, I figured I would need to be a chemist, since medicines are
chemicals. Although secretly, I was a little intimidated by my childhood chemistry set—what if I
mixed the wrong combination and made something toxic or explosive?
Then in high school, I discovered DNA replication. In an instant, biology shed its veneer of
dissection and memorization to reveal an elegant, algorithmic core, although it would be years
before I would realize that was the right word. All I knew at the time was that I wanted to know
more. Soon I learned that the viruses I wanted to conquer were replication distilled to its very
essence, deepening my fascination. I realized I was a biologist.
As an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, I took every microbiology and molecular biology class
I could. I also secured a spot in a laboratory studying the Golgi apparatus. I worked my way
through washing glassware to prepping stock solutions to maintaining cell cultures before finally
doing a bit of research. The Golgi apparatus may not have been my first choice, but I figured I
was still at a stage where I needed to master the basics common to any laboratory research. My
technique at the bench wasn’t the most fruitful and I felt more at home in the campus’s many
computer labs, but I hoped that was just inexperience and part of paying my dues. When I got to
graduate school and could study viruses, surely everything else would sort itself out.
I went to graduate school at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health where I
could study viruses, but my technical deficiencies followed me there. I never fully diagnosed
why, but I just wasn’t very successful in the lab. I’d get low yields, ambiguous results, and dead
cultures. But for a biologist, I was pretty good at math. And I was fortunate to be in a department
with a broad remit, so I was able to find a thesis project applying math to studying viral diseases
without changing programs. Thanks to a requirement to present my research to my peers
regularly, I also got lots of practice explaining statistics to biologists.
For my postdoctoral fellowship, I went back to Carnegie Mellon, only this time in the School of
Computer Science. I had an opportunity to more fully explore how the algorithmic nature of
biological processes could be studied with the tools of computer science. Now the script from
grad school was flipped as I found myself explaining biology to computer scientists. My advisor
was a tenured professor in machine learning looking to branch out into computational biology for
the same reason I wanted to study viruses as a kid: a desire to help meet people’s tangible needs.
And it turned out that for a biostatistician, I was a passable computer programmer. That allowed
me to contribute to the computational research beyond just knowing that biologists mean
something very different by ‘vector’ than computer scientists do.
That fellowship ended in the fall of 2008, one of the less auspicious times in recent memory to
be looking for any kind of job, let alone a junior faculty position as jack-of-all-trades without a
deep publication record in any specific field. Fortunately, I found myself interviewing at a little
company called Health Monitoring which (1) wrote software (2) for public health agencies
which (3) applied statistical analysis to healthcare data (4) in order to track infectious diseases.
They didn’t actually have an open position for someone like me, but only because it never
occurred to them that someone who ticked all those boxes would actually exist. And I had never
imagined myself working at such a company, because it never occurred to me one would
combine all of my interests so neatly.
At Health Monitoring, I have the opportunity to work closely with public health departments to
address a variety of concerns. We’ve tracked the emergence of novel H1N1 influenza in the
United States using emergency department registrations. We developed algorithms for
monitoring unanticipated health events at mass gatherings such as Super Bowl XLVIII and the
2016 Democratic and Republican National Conventions. Most recently, we’ve collaborated on
text classifiers for identifying healthcare visits associated with opioid use disorder.
For the moment, it appears my meandering career path has turned out well, leading me to a place
where I can fruitfully apply so much of what I have learned. Along the way, I’ve had the chance
to practice another skill. Working across disciplines provides plenty of opportunities to explain
science topics to folks who are intelligent and educated but not necessarily an expert in that
particular field. I get regular feedback on whether I’m communicating clearly. I get asked
intriguing questions not usually raised within the community of a given field. And I get to stretch
ideas and methods and tools by applying them in new contexts.
All of that interdisciplinary experience has proven helpful answering the science questions of my
fellow Christians. In that capacity, I’ve been able to serve both my local church as a teacher for
teens and adults and the wider Christian community as a science writer. I blog weekly for
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Emerging Scholars Network, and have contributed for
BioLogos and Christianity Today. So many folks have science questions these days, because so
much of modern science is based on observations you can’t readily make in your backyard.
When Proverbs says “Look to the ant,” just about anyone can find some ants to watch.
Nowadays we have to look to the quark, and while they are everywhere around us they might as
well be a million miles away.
Yet for those who do take the time to look to the quark, the quasar, the qbit, and the quaternion,
there are still theological lessons to be learned. My faith in the God of the Bible has been
stretched and deepened by studying science and then asking how the ideas I’ve learned can help
me understand that God better. After all, that’s what the writer of Proverbs was doing when he
studied ants. All of my practice at applying ideas from one scientific discipline to another has
come in handy for applying scientific ideas to theology as well.
“Is faith really the opposite of science?” “How do we understand God’s sovereignty and our free
will?” “What does it mean to be a living sacrifice?” “Is Jesus really likely to return after 2,000
years?” Personally, I’ve found it fruitful and satisfying to think through these theological
questions and many others using the conceptual toolbox I’ve built up through my studies of
science. At this point, I’m not sure what my relationship with God would look like if I hadn’t
found this way of exploring my questions.
I don’t know how replicable my specific career path will be, nor do I know where it is taking me.
Certainly there will continue to be public health needs, and opportunities to apply statistics and
computational algorithms will likely increase as more data are collected. Whether you feel called
in that particular direction or not, consider pursuing some interests beyond your chosen field.
Take that class in another department that sounds intriguing. Find a collaboration with a
researcher in a different discipline. Think about how to paint or sing or dance your thesis. You
may be creating opportunities for your future career that you didn’t even know were possible.
And you might learn something about God you might never have realized otherwise.