Mental Edge of Michigan Training Set Alum up for Success

Rena Sun

Rena Sun

PhD ‘12, Biostatistics; Director, Strategy Insights & Analytics, Novartis Pharmaceuticals


Rena Sun’s journey with biostatistics has been atypical. While in graduate school, Rena interned at several pharmaceutical companies and she fell in love with the industry. She found that her true passion was not in the details of analysis, but in the structural system that enables the pharmaceutical industry to exist. Research, development, production, and commercial work are all essential so Rena decided to become involved at a broader level. This led her into the world of consulting and project management.

Her first experiences with consulting had pros and cons. Early in her career she thrived as she learned to grapple with new challenges, broaden her views, and travel widely to meet with clients. “I enjoy the learning process and getting exposure to different things,” she says. The fast pace and constant novelty of her work was exciting and rewarding.

However, she eventually found her job frustrating at the implementation phase. After meeting with clients for several months and developing a strategy for professional improvement, her work was finished and the company was responsible for implementing the plan. Sometimes Rena saw results, and other times she didn’t. “That’s the difference between strategy or the vision versus implementation or execution, the actual day-to-day work,” says Rena. Sometimes the execution never happens.

A desire to be involved at both the strategy and implementation levels led Rena into her current job at Novartis Pharmaceuticals, where she works as a director of insight analytics. "This job," Rena notes with satisfaction, “is a combination of strategy and working with the team.”

"You don't just learn the one theory and develop a thesis or paper and call that knowledge. You actually develop a way of solving a problem, a way of understanding and knowing what are the other creative ways that you can contribute to this theory or model, so that you can solve applied problems."

Although her work is not traditional for a biostatistician, Rena is quick to recognize the value her education provides in her current work. Companies seek to hire consultants from diverse backgrounds, and Rena’s statistical knowledge makes her a valuable part of the vision team. She also notes that the mental training she received at the University of Michigan has been very beneficial for her professionally.

“You don’t just learn the one theory and develop a thesis or paper and call that knowledge,” Rena says. “You actually develop a way of solving a problem, a way of understanding and knowing what are the other creative ways that you can contribute to this theory or model, so that you can solve applied problems.”

Rena recalls that her initial draw to biostatistics was “the beauty of applying statistics to a field with a good cause.” Now through her job supporting the work of developers at Novartis Pharmaceuticals, she’s found a new way to accomplish this goal.

Rena advises current students to do some goal setting of their own; “What do you really want in life?” and “How do you envision your life in 20 years?” In order to achieve the goals created by answering to those questions, she says “work it backwards, think about what you need to do today or in the next three to five years to make it happen. That can help you make clear and focused decisions.”

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