Vishakha Sharma M.S. ’09 Ph.D. ’15 Brings the Power of Computer Science to Healthcare
As senior principal data scientist at Roche, Vishakha Sharma M.S. ’09 Ph.D. ’15 is transforming healthcare diagnostics through a line of software applications that reduce time to treatment and support improvements to clinical care. As a pioneer in bringing the power of computer science to healthcare, Dr. Sharma is an inspiration to the next generation of women in STEM.
Vishakha Sharma M.S. ’09 Ph.D. ’15 has a pioneering spirit. The first woman in her family to study engineering, she traveled from her home in India to New Jersey and pursued advanced degrees at Stevens. “I was looking at universities on the East Coast,” she recalls. “Stevens caught my attention. When I researched the computer science department, its curriculum and the qualifications of the faculty, I decided to visit. I knew this was the right place for me.”
Dr. Sharma decided to build on her bachelor’s in computer science from Pune University, earning a master’s and Ph.D. in computer science. As her expertise grew, Dr. Sharma’s keen eye began to see the potential for her discipline to bring value to the decidedly different field of healthcare.
“It started with the biology computation and genetics classes that I took during my first year of Ph.D. study,” she says. “Biology and genetics are all about life and studying them centers on what is happening in the lab. This raised a lot of questions in my mind. How might you bring computation into biology experiments? How can computation offer solutions to biology problems? Could computer science be a tool in efforts to improve healthcare outcomes?”
It was an unusual turn for a student of computer science. Dr. Sharma’s master’s level internship as an IT analyst at Barclays was perhaps more typical for her field, but by 2012, she was a data scientist research assistant with Stevens’ Semcer Center for Healthcare Innovation, working on strategies for personalizing oncology care. She worked with advisor Dr. Adriana Compagnoni on the design and implementation of BioScape, a modeling language for the stochastic simulation of biological and biomedical systems, and the development of various models such as viral transport, drug response in breast cancer, and pH-triggered antibacterial coatings. Dr. Sharma’s work was recognized when she was selected from highly competitive applicant pools to earn scholarships and participate in the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing 2012 and the ACM Conference on Bioinformatics, Computational Biology and Biomedicine. During this time, Dr. Sharma taught programming languages paradigms at City University of New York as well.
In 2014, Dr. Sharma interned at the Palo Alto Research Center, using machine learning to improve city mobility asset allocation. She also spent six years as a research scientist for the Systems Engineering Research Center, working on a U.S. Department of Defense project to identify counterfeit products in the military supply chain.
The pull of the healthcare field drew Dr. Sharma to Georgetown University Medical Center, where from 2016 to 2018, she was a research fellow developing a natural language processing tool to enhance personalized medicine, and then to Roche.
In 2018, Sharma joined the pharmaceutical and diagnostic giant as lead data scientist, quickly rising to principal data scientist. In 2021, she became senior principal data scientist at the company.
“After completing my Ph.D., I was delving more deeply into machine learning and data science,” Dr. Sharma says, “and I was more interested than ever in the convergence of health science and computer science. Through Stevens, I was able to participate in international collaborations focused on clinical challenges in biomaterials-associated infections at University Medical Center Groningen, Netherlands and worked on an open-source research project with a team based in Microsoft Research, Cambridge, U.K. These experiences took my learning to a higher level.”
In her current role at Roche, Dr. Sharma is leading efforts to use natural language processing and machine learning to improve the company’s NAVIFY product portfolio. “NAVIFY securely interjects patient data across care settings,” she explains. “This gives healthcare providers a comprehensive view of their patients and improves clinical care coordination. The time to treatment is reduced and care can be more specific.”
In addition to her dissertation, “Language Design and Implementation for Computational Modeling, Simulation and Visualization,” Dr. Sharma has authored more than 40 peer-reviewed articles and proceedings and has delivered more than 15 invited talks. She serves on several international scientific and technical program committees and as a panelist at conferences on AI, machine learning and natural language processing. Prior to joining Roche, Dr. Sharma’s research work was funded by the National Institute of Health’s Big Data to Knowledge initiative. She is a senior member of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and in 2023, became a fellow of the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA). Dr. Sharma has also completed the Stanford University Graduate School of Business LEAD Executive Program, focusing on Corporate Innovation.
Dr. Sharma has another goal that she is passionate about: increasing the number of women in computing. “It is so important to motivate women undergraduates to stay in STEM,” she says. “I want to show them what is possible and be part of their support system.”
As a student, Dr. Sharma was active in the Stevens Women in Computer Science organization. As a Stevens alumna, she stays in touch with her advisor, and with the team at the Career Center who were helpful in connecting her with meaningful internship opportunities.
“You could study in any major at Stevens and have opportunities to work across departments,” Dr. Sharma says. “I was in computer science and was able to collaborate with the biology department. Everyone there was so welcoming. And once you start networking and understanding what others are doing, you will see the extent of your own field’s potential.”