Biostatistics' BEST Program Nurtures New Talent

July 31, 2012

It's not every day that an undergraduate gets to do original research that could lead to a life-saving innovation. Then again, it’s not every day that undergraduates have the opportunity for close mentoring by top research scientists in public health. That’s part of the opportunity provided every summer by the Mailman School’s Biostatistics Enrichment Summer Training Diversity Program (BEST).

BEST participants Imaani Eastausen and Isaac Quintanilla talk with their faculty mentor Dr. David Lederer

The brainchild of Emma Benn, a recent doctoral graduate, and doctoral student Gary Yu, BEST was created in 2008 to enhance diversity in public health by exposing underserved groups to the field, especially in biostatistics. Since then, every June, 10 to 15 college students come to Mailman for an eight-week biostatistics boot camp.

Now in its fifth year, the program consists of introductory courses in biostatistics, a seminar series with faculty, graduate school counseling, and a research project undertaken with faculty mentors. The intensive eight-week program culminates with presentations of the students' capstone research. This summer’s crew of 14 “BESTies” made their presentations on July 19th, with research topics ranging from Vitamin D and Depression to PTSD. 

Among the most promising projects was one by Isaac Quintanilla, a junior at Cal State—Monterey Bay who is majoring in biology, and Imaani Eastausen, a freshman at Bard College studying written arts with a pre-med track. Their research, overseen by their faculty mentors, Drs. Matthew Baldwin and David Lederer, analyzed the 1-year mortality rates for lung transplant patients. Imaani and Isaac’s findings showed that by expanding the donor age cutoff from 55 to 64, an additional 288 lungs could be harvested annually with a negligible impact on 1-year mortality.  Those additional organs could save the lives of many of the 300-400 people who die each year while waiting for donor lungs.

Their findings are so significant that, according to Dr. Baldwin, an American Thoracic Society abstract will be submitted this fall to be published in the American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine. He also plans to write up the research for submission to top pulmonary-critical care journals. Isaac and Imaani will be listed as co-authors. “They should be published and listed under PubMed by early next year,” says Dr. Baldwin—a  remarkable achievement for undergraduates.

Getting a taste for original research is one of the ways that the BEST program introduces participants to the excitement of the public health field. While the program is only in its fifth year, a number of BEST alumni have already been admitted to top schools of public health, with two currently enrolled at Mailman. One such BESTie, Justin Rucker (BEST 2010), had planned on going directly to medical school after he graduated from the University of North Carolina. But after completing the program, he became fascinated by public health and is currently studying at Mailman before heading to med school. 

Raymond Morales, a recent St. Joseph’s College graduate and 2012 BEST student, is on a similar trajectory. Having studied biology with a track in pre-medicine, Raymond is now looking to study epidemiology before applying to medical school, so that his development as a physician wil be informed by a public health perspective. 

Professional development aside, these BESTies would likely tell you that the most rewarding aspect of the program was being exposed to the diverse viewpoints and backgrounds of fellow students and faculty. That exposure opened their minds to new possible paths to their future. Says Celina Rogers, a junior at the University of Connecticut majoring in allied health sciences, “If you would’ve asked us the first day, we would have said, ‘This is what I’m doing, this is where I’m going.’ But this program has shown us a lot more options.”