Rising to the COVID-19 Challenge

ALUMNA SPOTLIGHT | SARAH MCGOUGH – CLASS OF 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust epidemiologists into the spotlight, placing what was generally considered a behind-the-scenes profession into daily news coverage and public conversation.

Dr. Sarah McGough is one such extraordinary epidemiologist. Sarah graduated from La Reina in 2010 and she currently works in biotech as a Senior Data Scientist at Genentech in San Francisco. Her work focuses on disease modeling in both the infectious disease space (specifically, COVID-19) and oncology.

Dr. McGough shared that her work involves a fascinating combination of quantitative and biological sciences with a very tangible impact on population health. As an example, Dr. McGough developed a real-time disease tracking algorithm and software with the CDC that is utilized by health departments globally to track the spread of COVID-19. Her findings, published with the New York City Department of Health, were used to improve contemporaneous understanding of COVID-19 spread in NYC at the onset of the pandemic and to allocate resources to boroughs with the highest projected burden of disease. Dr. McGough’s model is currently being utilized by health departments globally to track the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. McGough earned her Ph.D. at Harvard, where her focus was on using mathematical and statistical (including more advanced “AI”) models to track and predict the transmission of infectious diseases in the population.

We had the opportunity to speak with Dr. McGough about her important work:

What is the goal of your work?

“The goal of my efforts is precision medicine: How can we utilize the large volumes of clinical and genomic data collected on millions of patients to improve their overall health, longevity, and treatment options? Can we identify unmet needs in the population? As an example, patients who have a particular cancer mutational profile that may be targeted with novel therapies to extend survival.

All of this takes rigorous data and statistical modeling and is an extension of my epidemiology training. In addition, I continue to actively collaborate with my Harvard and CDC colleagues to develop and implement disease forecasting solutions.

Depending on the disease area, these models might draw on different data sources including weather data, population immunity, and Internet search trends, in addition to the foundational information on cases, deaths, and hospitalizations collected by local and national health surveillance systems. These models are important because they serve as early warning systems for public health systems to prepare for and prevent outbreaks through interventions.”

How did you choose your career path?

“I have always had a keen interest in human health; I loved the sciences, and especially biology, and those who knew me at La Reina knew I was also a crusader for inequities - health inequities in particular being so closely tied to poverty, structural injustice, and other. But the idea of being a physician to treat human health - usually after an individual’s health fails - was not as fulfilling as focusing on the cause and spread of disease in the first place; my interest was in large-scale, population health. It is such a rich and interdisciplinary field spanning the natural sciences, quantitative sciences, and social sciences.”

My La Reina, all- girls education was of course the foundation for my personal empowerment, curiosity, and intellect. At La Reina, girls shine; this confidence and self-esteem is something not to be taken for granted when entering a male-dominated STEM field!

How did your La Reina education affect your career choice?

“My La Reina all-girls education was of course the foundation for my personal empowerment, curiosity and intellect. At La Reina, girls shine; this confidence and self-esteem is something not to be taken for granted when entering a male- dominated STEM field! I cannot stress enough the importance of leaving for college knowing & expecting to see girls in leadership positions - because I had them - President of Human Rights Club, Co-Editor- in-Chief of the La Reina Herald were my most cherished extracurriculars.”

I won’t say that I knew as a high school student that I would end up in the field of epidemiology. And I didn’t have many examples around me of those in that field. But, I had a very certain sense of self and purpose, which was encouraged and celebrated at La Reina. I assembled my learnings like building blocks - of course fundamentally by pursuing the AP science and math curriculum, but more importantly outside the classroom by leading human rights campaigns for the Human Rights Club, publishing social justice-themed op- eds for the La Reina Herald, going to State in international extemporaneous speaking, for the speech and debate team. These experiences built up the pieces of my interests around my academic work, which shaped my career in data and science for social good.” 

How did your all-girls education help you find your voice?

“At La Reina girls not only have a voice- they are the voice. As students we are encouraged to find our voices through our goofy traditions like Renaissance Day (Shakespearean acting and sonnet recitals for all), through our required work in speech and debate, and through essentially all aspects of our female-driven school life (club leadership, student government, sports, and the like). It is really easy to “know who you are” when you grow and learn in such an environment. The high academic standards at La Reina go without saying - so in that sense, as an alumna I felt more than equipped to tackle difficult problems while having a solid character, voice, and sense of who I am.

I won’t say that I knew as a high school student that I would end up in the field of epidemiology. And I didn’t have many examples around me of those in that field. But, I had a very certain sense of self and purpose, which was encouraged and celebrated at La Reina. I assembled my learnings like building blocks - of course fundamentally by pursuing the AP science and math curriculum, but more importantly outside the classroom by leading human rights campaigns for the Human Rights Club, publishing social justice-themed op-eds for the La Reina Herald, going to State in international extemporaneous speaking, for the speech and debate team. These experiences built up the pieces of my interests around my academic work, which shaped my career in data and science for social good.”

What advice can you offer to current Regents?

“My advice would be: Find what you love and pursue it endlessly, inside and outside the classroom! In addition, challenge yourself to share that passion with others, because it is through such actions that you can refine your own unique voice. Lastly, if a path doesn’t exist for you- make one. Epidemiology isn’t studied at the undergraduate level- I had roughly three majors and two minors to study everything I could. The LRHS Human Rights Club had to work very hard to innovate and get campaigns off the ground for the student body. Persuasion and persistence goes a long way!”

Sarah McGough is a Senior Data Scientist at Genentech in San Francisco. She received her B.A. from the University of Notre Dame, in 2014. In 2016, Sarah earned her Master of Science (M.Sc.) in Infectious Epidemiology from Harvard School of Public Health. Sarah recently went on to graduate from Harvard University with her Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in 2019.

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