Dr. Sofija Spasojevic: Making sense of data to enhance people’s lives

Dr. Sofija Spasojevic

When Dr. Sofija Spasojevic chose to pursue postdoctoral studies in Canada, she fully anticipated returning to Europe at the end. After three years, she not only decided to stay but discovered a passion for data science that prompted her to leave academia for a career in this field.

“Typically there are two routes you take as a postdoctoral fellow, either continue on as a professor or switch to industry,” says Dr. Spasojevic, an alumna of AGE-WELL’s EPIC (Early Professionals, Inspired Careers) training program who landed a position as a data scientist with Roche Canada in 2021.

“I was so inspired by what I was seeing in my clinical data analysis work, that I decided to find a job where I could apply those skills to truly make a difference in people’s lives,” she says.

Dr. Spasojevic’s core specialty is signal processing, a skill she developed as an undergraduate and Master’s student in electrical engineering at the University of Belgrade in Serbia. Her interest in data science was sparked during her PhD studies ‒ a bilateral program between the University of Belgrade and Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon, Portugal, where she used real-world data collected from sensors worn by patients to develop decision-making systems to support the diagnosis and monitoring of neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease or stroke.

That work led her to Canada where, as a postdoctoral fellow at the University Health Network in Toronto, she joined a KITE Research Institute team working to create an early-warning system to detect agitation in people with dementia. A group of 20 study participants were provided with wristwatches equipped with wearable sensors to monitor heart rate, body temperature, dermal activity and motion. The idea: to build a machine-learning model capable of predicting when an episode of agitation was likely to occur based on changes in those parameters.

A key turning point came six months into her program when Dr. Spasojevic’s supervisor mentioned AGE-WELL’s EPIC training program and encouraged her to apply. Dr. Spasojevic was accepted and over the course of the next two and a half years, elevated her research skills to a new level.

“The exposure and networking opportunities presented through AGE-WELL had a direct impact on my approach,” said Dr. Spasojevic, who had the opportunity to co-create technology solutions with older adults and caregivers while attending the AGE-WELL Summer Institute in Gatineau, Quebec.

“It really opened my eyes to see why two-way communication between developers and end-users is so important,” she says. “If you close engineers in a room, they will come up with what they think is an ideal solution, but without direct feedback from users, they can’t possibly have full insight into potential roadblocks.”

Dr. Spasojevic attended numerous AGE-WELL events, webinars and online courses, and presented her research results at an annual conference. When she decided to pursue a career in industry, her involvement as an AGE-WELL trainee was a noticeable advantage, she says.

“My training is part of the reason I was such a good fit,” says Dr. Spasojevic, noting that Roche Canada was particularly impressed with her connection to stakeholders and users through the AGE-WELL network.

At Roche Canada, Dr. Spasojevic is part of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Digital Health team, working to develop data-driven solutions to help patients, including older adults, in terms of diagnosis, monitoring, and treatments. In many ways, her studies have brought her full circle, she says, and she welcomes the opportunity to mentor other AGE-WELL trainees who may also be considering a career in industry.

“As a researcher, I collected signals from sensors and built my own data sets,” says Dr. Spasojevic. “Now, in my professional life, data sets are already available to me and my focus is on data analysis and providing valuable insights from data. I’ve closed the loop.”

All with the goal, she adds, of making a positive difference in people’s lives.