Kiros Berhane speaks at a podium to a seated audience

Biostatistics Symposium Highlights Partnerships and Innovation

October 5, 2023

In the age of artificial intelligence and big data, biostatistics is booming as a field. To seize the moment and build momentum, the Columbia Mailman Department of Biostatistics hosted the inaugural Columbia Biostatistics Annual Research Symposium, or CBARS.

Dean Linda P. Fried

Dean Linda P. Fried. Photo: Lou Rocco

Over the course of a day and a half, biostatisticians discussed the latest developments in the field, from new research findings to collaborations between academia and industry—all with the goal of improving health outcomes and promoting health equity. Participants included faculty from across Columbia Mailman and Columbia Irving Medical Center, Columbia Departments of Statistics and Computer Science, as well as leaders from the Columbia Data Science Institute, industry leaders from Merck, Eli Lilly, and IBM, and Columbia Mailman students. Departmental alumni and others participated via a live stream.

In opening remarks, Dean Linda P. Fried said the field of biostatistics will play a key role in meeting the future demands and opportunities in public health, both in research and impact—and in positioning the School to lead in its second century. She said the Department, as well as the School, more broadly, are committed “not just to building cutting edge methods but to empowering and understanding of how to bring more health to our population.”

A woman with glasses speaks at a podium

Tianxi Cai. Photo: Lou Rocco. 

The symposium covered wide-ranging methodological and trans-disciplinary topic areas, from environmental health and climate to the latest developments in AI. Keynote speaker Tianxi Cai, Professor of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School, presented techniques to synthesize electronic health records across health systems. Group sessions focused on topics ranging from precision medicine and Mhealth (mobile phone and watch-based health apps), to environmental health statistics and data-driven treatment and prevention strategies.

A man wearing a red tie speaks at a podium

Eric Warren Goldman. Photo: Lou Rocco

Kiros Berhane, chair of Biostatistics, presented a special recognition to Sanford Bolton, MS ’66, Phyllis Bolton, and the Bolton Trust and Estate “for significant support to the department,” including funding for BEST (Biostatistics Epidemiology Training), a pathway program for undergraduates from underrepresented communities, as well as the Sanford Bolton Faculty Scholar Award and the Sanford Bolton-John Fertig Doctoral Dissertation Prize. Eric Warren Goldman, Trustee of the Bolton Family Trust, accepted the honor.

Industry keynote speaker Shahram Ebadollahi, former Global Head of Data Science and AI at Novartis, remarked on the explosion of AI in industry, academia, and society at large, underlining the field’s revolutionary potential on par with the advent of the printing press. “Our culture is based on words and stories—for the first time a machine is telling stories,” said Ebadollahi, adding, “We need talent, the people sitting here … to keep the pace of evolution.”

One man speaks into a microphone while another man looks on

Yue Shentu of Merck (left) and Haoda Fu of Eli Lilly and Company. Photo: Lou Rocco

Ying Wei, professor of biostatistics, introduced the new TRIAL (Translational AI Laboratory) 2BetterHealth working group, which focuses on using and developing translational AI tools to tackle complex biostatistical problems. Wei said TRIAL will harness real-world data in concert with partners within the university and beyond. While the methods may be complex, she said, AI research should be accessible to all.

A poster competition and presentations highlighted research by PhD students in the department, with subjects such as equitable clinical decision-making, environmental statistics, and AI. 

“Our students really excel and have shown resilience and excellence since the start of our programs including the latest increasingly popular ones focusing on public health data science,” said Berhane. “The department has a lot to offer in training the next generation of data scientists.”

All photos by Lou Rocco.