Simply the Best: Celebrating a Decade of Diversity

Students, alumni, and faculty mark 10 years of the Mailman School’s Biostatistics Epidemiology Summer Training program for minority undergraduates

August 9, 2017

The number-one master’s degree in the United States for job prospects, according to Forbes magazine is (drumroll…): biostatistics. Not everyone, however, has had an equal chance at these jobs, as biostatisticians traditionally skew white and male. Helping balance this equation is the Mailman School’s Biostatistics Epidemiology Summer Training program, better known as BEST, which just celebrated 10 years of introducing minority students to the field.

Launched as a pilot program in 2008, the eight-week program, which today receives funds from the National Institutes of Health, gives undergraduates a concentrated introduction to biostatistics, from basics like calculating prevalence and incidence to advanced topics in linear and logistic regression. Each “BESTie” is assigned to a faculty mentor who gives them a research project with real-world implications. Examples from the latest cohort include a comparison of oral microflora and measuring the placebo effect in patients with depression.

BEST was born of an idea had by two then Mailman students: Emma Benn, MPH 2007, DrPH 2012, and Gary Yu, DrPH 2014, MPH 2006. “I was a doctoral student in a field where I didn’t see or I didn’t know many people who looked like me,” recalled Benn, who is African-American. “No one told us we could be biostatisticians when we grew up.” (Today, Benn is on faculty at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.)

Of the 110 students who have taken part in BEST and graduated from college, three-quarters have gone on to pursue graduate degrees—including several at the Mailman School—and some are already embarked on careers in public health. “It’s about creating a pipeline, and the pipeline has to flow in a plentiful way,” said DuBois Bowman, Chairman and Cynthia and Robert Citrone-Roslyn and Leslie Goldstein Professor of Biostatistics.

The kind of skills taught in BEST are rarely available to anyone not enrolled in graduate school, noted Dana March, associate professor of Epidemiology and BEST co-director. “You’re so much more advanced than I ever was as an undergraduate,” March told the current BEST cohort, adding that in college she erroneously thought epidemiology was about treating skin disease.

BEST alums attending a dinner celebration at the Vagelos Education Center said that the quantitative skills the they learned were matched by the self-confidence they gained.

Sharon Mwale, a member of the 2013 BEST cohort, spoke proudly of how she went on to earn an MPH in healthcare management from Yale and now works with HealthVenture, a New York firm that invests in digital healthcare startups. By exposing her to women of color like herself who are doing research, the summer program, Mwale said, “gave me a lot of confidence and belief in myself.”

Emily Romero, a first-generation American and member of the 2016 cohort, credited BEST with teaching her to tap into a professional network that led to a job as a junior programmer at Columbia’s Center for Behavioral and Cardiovascular Health. “It’s given me the ability to get out of my comfort zone,” she said. “It’s given me a family.” Starting this fall, Romero will pursue an MS in Biostatistics at the Mailman School.

But BEST isn’t just about individual success stories; several speakers observed that biostatistics as a science is strengthened by the number of viewpoints represented by those who contribute to the field.

“To identify the right questions—the relevant, ethical, important questions to address—we have to have all perspectives around the table,” said Melissa Begg, Vice Provost for Academic Programs at Columbia University and a professor of Biostatistics. “You in the BEST program have to have voice in setting the research agenda.”

The power of diversity to strengthen science was echoed in a keynote speech by Katherine Phillips, the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School. Phillips spoke about a study comparing two groups—one homogenous, the other diverse—with attention to how they solved a problem. The heterogeneous team, she said, outperformed their more uniform counterparts. “[Diverse groups] dig into the information more deeply. They share the knowledge, and they come up with the answer more often than the groups that don’t have that diversity.”

But while the homogenous group fared comparatively worse than the diverse group, the former felt more certain about their results. “Homogeneity makes us feel more comfortable, and makes us believe we have the right answer,” said Phillips. “The reality is that diversity is hard work for people. When they get into diverse groups and hear different perspectives and ideas and hear that maybe their idea may not be the only solution or the right solution, it makes them uncomfortable. But it’s the discomfort that leads to better outcomes.”