Summer Program Opens the Door to a Future in Data Science

July 19, 2022

Undergraduate students in the Summer Training Institute in Biostatistics and Data Science at Columbia (SIBDS@Columbia) presented the results of their research in a poster session on July 14. Topics spanned the spectrum of public health, from schizophrenia treatments and biomarkers for dementia to tracking hurricane intensity and HIV prevalence.

Designed to cultivate new talent in data science and biostatistics, SIBDS@Columbia is new this year, joining other summer programs taught by Columbia Mailman faculty, including BEST (Biostatistics Epidemiology Summer Training) Diversity Program, PrIMER (Program to Inspire Minority and Underserved Undergraduates in Environmental Health Science Research), the Summer Public Health Scholars Program (SPHSP), the CURE Program, and ICAP’s Next Generation Program.

Chosen from a large number of highly competitive applicants, 11 students from across the country took part in SIBDS@Columbia. Over seven weeks, they learned from faculty biostatisticians and applied their newly acquired skills to research projects, working alongside faculty.

McCord Murray, a data science major at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said he enjoyed the chance to learn the fundamentals of biostatistics and epidemiology, as well as hands-on training in the R statistics programming language. The highlight, he said, was “doing research and learning how to apply what we learned in class to a real-world experiment.”

For undergraduates, the kind of training SIBDS provides is rare. It also doesn’t hurt that the program takes place at a top-ranked school of public health with an undeniable geographical appeal. A National Institutes of Health grant covers related costs, including housing and most meals.

Ellie Schumacher, Bryn Mawr math major and health studies minor, pursued the summer program to get research experience and apply what she has learned to public health issues—in her case, an analysis of dementia biomarkers. “I also couldn’t pass up an opportunity to live in New York City,” she added.

Through the program, students had the opportunity to meet biostatisticians in academia and industry, who gave guest lectures about their varied paths to rewarding careers in data science. Participants also received guidance on the graduate school admissions process.

John Yanev, a statistics major at St. Louis University, said coming into the program, his knowledge of data science was limited to technical skills he learned in the classroom. SIBDS opened his eyes into what a future as a data scientist would look like: “I wanted more practical knowledge and [understanding of] what goes on in real life,” he explained.

Many in the SIBDS cohort are already charting their course. Abbey Skinner, a math and statistics major at Amherst College whose project focused on a comparison of schizophrenia therapies, said, “I’ve gotten a lot of intel on what a future in biostatics might be. After this program, I’m definitely more inclined to think about [pursuing] biostats on a graduate or PhD level.”

The program has been just as rewarding on the teaching side. Years ago, as an undergraduate, Christine Mauro, SIBDS@Columbia co-director and faculty instructor, participated in a similar summer training program—an experience that put her on a path leading to her current role as assistant professor of biostatistics.

“It’s a full circle moment for me,” Mauro said. “When I went into that summer program, I didn’t know what biostatistics was about. I came out of it ready to go to grad school. I’m here because of that experience. I’m so happy I get to work with these bright and motivated young people to hopefully spark their own interest in the field.”