When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, senior leadership at Oracle realized quickly that Oracle had a large role to play. One of the biggest weapons in the fight against the pandemic was data—and managing and analyzing that data has always been at the heart of what Oracle does.
Oracle leaders gathered together a team of technologists and industry experts to meet the needs of both government officials and healthcare workers, from building the platform to help screen volunteers for COVID-19 clinical trials, to enabling people in the United States who have received the vaccine to report on their health and any adverse effects, to supporting dozens of researchers worldwide who are studying COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. “As with the pandemic, our response evolved. Early on, healthcare leaders were focused on treatment, then prevention, then managing the distribution and monitoring of the vaccine,” says Katherine Vandebelt, global vice president of clinical innovation for Oracle.
Among the thousands of employees who stepped up to help, five women have especially challenging jobs. From a senior architect responsible for vetting every COVID-19 grant presented to Oracle, to a pharmaceutical industry expert who acts as an intermediary between health science researchers and developers on the Oracle team, their stories highlight some of the contributions made by women at Oracle.
After 30 years in the pharmaceutical industry, Katherine Vandebelt knew that legacy, paper-based systems were preventing the industry from embracing digital data collection and analysis. Vandebelt joined Oracle to bring these modern data practices to the industry and has applied her deep knowledge of clinical trial regulations, applications, and data practices to Oracle’s pandemic response program. “Data is the key asset in this project, so every new feature, every change, has to support the ability to analyze the data,” says Vandebelt.
Beyond that, Vandebelt says that her most important responsibility is to safeguard the interests of the community of citizens willing to receive the vaccine and share information about the vaccine’s efficacy. “By contributing your information, it helps physicians understand your experience and understand which vaccines are better for what populations,” she says. “To be able to do this on behalf of Oracle and the health community, it’s been an honor.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, everyone on the Oracle Cloud Infrastructure development team wanted to help. First on the list: working with customers to keep their systems working at full capacity, especially those providing essential services and developing COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. “Everyone wanted to help and we needed so many different skills,” says Danne Stayskal, architect for Oracle Cloud Infrastructure. “We needed people fluent in Spanish to double-check our translations. We needed people who were good at load testing to hammer those servers to make sure that they're going to stand up to the production load.” This flexibility has allowed the entire Oracle Cloud Infrastructure team to support essential government, healthcare, and research efforts over the past 12 months.
Delivering at that level (and under pressure) takes skills—and Stayskal has them. With expertise in AI, security, and systems architecture, it didn’t take her long to reach the highest levels in the Oracle Cloud development organization. She reviews every COVID-19 grant application Oracle receives to make sure each proposal is a viable project for Oracle Cloud. For example, Stayskal approved cloud credits for the University of Bristol team that is developing more effective antiviral drugs to treat COVID-19 and recently approved credits for a California-based team creating a crowdsourced system for people to sign up for vaccines.
Stayskal believes that the pandemic has created a shift in society similar to that of the dawning of the nuclear age by making distributed, global work a daily reality, ushering in the true digital era. It has also leveled the playing field for women and under-represented minorities. “Everyone is the same height. Everyone is the same volume—it’s unified a lot of teams, even though we’re no longer in the same room,” she says.
With a PhD in molecular genetics, Rebecca Laborde’s career started in the labs at the Mayo Clinic, on the traditional path of a research scientist. She worked on an effort to bring knowledge from research labs into clinics to support patient care, then bring insights from patients back to the labs to drive new research. “I realized that there are lot of delays in getting insights that benefit patients because of the challenges involved in accessing data and moving it around,” says Laborde, now master principal scientist in clinical innovation for Oracle. “I decided that bringing my skill set to a technology company would be an interesting match to solve some of these problems.”
Laborde joined the team responding to the COVID-19 pandemic on Day One, playing the critical role of liaison between the Oracle developers and the healthcare and government leaders who were tasked with managing the pandemic. “We’ve been able to do huge things in days or weeks and capture critical information that we weren’t able to capture before.”
The three words Laborde uses to describe 2020 are exhausting, challenging—and rewarding. “We’re learning things that will improve how we live our lives, how we treat patients, how we prepare for the future. I think we can do things better based on what we've learned from everything we've gone through this year.”
2020 marked Sharon Kennedy’s 30th year at Oracle—and a year of 80-hour work weeks. As a consulting member of the technical staff for the Oracle Application Express (APEX) development team, Kennedy was one of the first people assigned to the public health management system project when senior leaders at Oracle recognized the responsibility the company had to help the US government support its pandemic response. “It is such an important initiative—the extra work hasn't been a hardship because being part of the solution is exactly what I wanted to be doing in 2020,” says Kennedy.
Kennedy’s team is using Oracle APEX, a development tool included in the Oracle Database, to build and enhance Oracle Public Health Management System. In addition to screening nearly 600,000 volunteers for COVID-19 clinical trials, the system has been used to collect millions of daily health updates from patients and healthcare providers. The team also developed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) V-safe After Vaccination Health Checker, which went live in December 2020 and as of February 2021 had collected more than 42 million survey responses from registrants in the US.
At the same time, Kennedy’s team was working with the CDC, they were also supporting the Tony Blair Institute in its effort to set up vaccine management initiatives in Ghana, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. The African nations will hopefully soon use the system for the COVID-19 vaccine, but in the meantime, they’re using it to create and manage electronic health records for people receiving yellow fever and HPV vaccines. This effort hits close to home for Kennedy. “I have two grown daughters, so for me the idea that we could use the same software to manage HPV vaccines for girls in Africa is really amazing. I had the ability to make sure that my daughters were vaccinated against HPV. Not all mothers have that opportunity.”
In 2019, Oracle for Research was in pilot mode, with plans to support different types of research in different disciplines. In early March of 2020, Alison Derbenwick Miller, the head of Oracle for Research, met with Larry Ellison and got the green light to move ahead. On March 11, when the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 virus a worldwide pandemic, everything changed. “We refocused the program to do a virtual launch, with a lot of virtual outreach,” says Derbenwick Miller. “And to support a lot of COVID-19 research.”
Currently Derbenwick Miller’s team is supporting 70 projects on 5 continents, including a researcher in Australia who had been working on a cancer vaccine who redirected his efforts to COVID-19 vaccine work and University of Bristol researchers’ discovery of characteristics of the COVID-19 spike protein that could result in new drugs for treatment and prevention. “By giving researchers access to Oracle Cloud and access to tools to manage and understand huge amounts of data, Oracle can be part of a force for good in the world,” she says.
Derbenwick Miller considers herself an academic at heart—prior to Oracle for Research, she headed up Oracle Academy, which provides free technology resources to educators—but she’s more comfortable with the fast pace of a startup. “Day to day, I’m spinning lots of plates and making sure nothing falls and breaks.”
Photography: Top image, Sorrasak Jar Tinyo/Getty Images
Margaret Lindquist is a senior director and writer at Oracle.