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Neuroscience Ph.D. to data science director: Ellen Ambrose’s path to Fells Point’s Protenus

Ambrose talks about moving from academia to a tech company, and taking on a leadership role.

This editorial article is a part of's Women in Tech month.

Leaders of tech companies in Baltimore often discuss the proximity to talent at the area’s universities as being among the key upsides to basing a company in the city. Among those have been the cofounders of Protenus, who themselves met while studying at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Dr. Ellen Ambrose’s path to a leadership role as director of data science at Fells Point-based healthcare data analytics company illustrates how the minds inside academic institutions can go on to bolster startups.

Ambrose received a doctorate in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, and as she thought about what was next, she got interested in data science and began seeking a team-oriented environment, she said.

“The kinds of skills that are transferrable are really the general ones” — such as the ability to look at large datasets and apply principles that can prove a conclusion is true in a rigorous way, Ambrose said. But there were more specific skills to gain, too.

To gain these, Ambrose joined the Data Incubator in D.C., a free data science bootcamp of sorts that offers a curriculum over eight weeks. Through that program, she also connected with Protenus CEO Nick Culbertson and ended up getting hired for a data science position at Protenus.

While data science jobs are becoming more in demand, formal training is still catching up. Ambrose said she saw the program as a way to gain the tools to enter the industry.

Everyone is willing to help each other as much as we can to get us all across the finish line and that's a different kind of environment than I came from.

At Protenus, she’s on a three-member team of data scientists and a developer. Like her, other members also have doctorates, but come from academic backgrounds outside of the tech field.

Ambrose said it was a “natural” transition from working in neuroscience. In Protenus’ platform that looks at workflow data from hospitals and other healthcare institutions to detect anomalies that could lead to a violation of patient privacy, Ambrose saw a unique dataset to dig into. She was also eager to embrace the quicker decision making that happens in industry when compared with academia, and collaborate on a team.

“We have a shared goal and we have shared credit. Everyone is willing to help each other as much as we can to get us all across the finish line and that’s a different kind of environment than I came from,” she said. The team embraces daily standups and uses HipChat to communicate. Plus, they sit close enough together where there are frequent chances to talk things through.

At Protenus, she said, the data science team is crucial in determining how to apply advanced analytics techniques to the company’s platform, and bringing the rigor that can ensure the products are effective.

Ambrose also became a leader of that team, as she set goals for the team and liked being involved in how their work fit together with other departments. After two and a half years with company, she became director of data science in January.

In general, data science is male-dominated, like other tech disciplines, and Ambrose said it’s a field “where you still feel like minority as a female.” But at Protenus, there’s a welcoming environment where she feels “fully accepted by everyone.” She also seeks out female mentors with experience from which she can learn (something we at have heard often this month).

At our recent stakeholder meeting, Protenus VP of People Operations Megan Emhoff told us about the importance of creating pathways to leadership for women. Ambrose’s trajectory shows how that’s playing out.

Companies: Protenus
Series: Women in Tech Month 2019

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