"Why Study Biostatistics?" I’m Glad You Asked!

February 1, 2013

Biostatistics is the art of asking questions. As a second semester student at Columbia, I have been energized by how many opportunities, amazing people and great research I have been exposed to. I believe it is important to follow intuition and cultivate a sense of awe both in what we do professionally and in life. When asking questions, it is equally as important to approach them with a precision that goes beyond gut instinct. Often I get asked, “Why biostatistics?” I thought I would write a bit on why biostatistics, and statistics in general, excites me and should excite you.

Before coming to Columbia, I opened my own doors. I left college after raising the funds to build a company based on patents I filed while studying computer science. As CEO of that company, I led a team of ten people located in India and the U.S.. My decisions did not just affect my life, but the lives of my colleagues, employees, and many others. Never before had it been more necessary for me to understand how to ask the right questions. Statistics was one of the most valuable tools I used while solving the daily challenges the company faced and setting it up for growth. With digital devices being almost ubiquitous, we are tracking and storing more and more data every day. It became evident to me that there was a shift taking place with the information economy that required professionals to be able to ask the right questions, handle big sets of data and understand how and when our information can give us answers to the questions we want to ask.

Several years after I founded my business, I was offered a position to become a partner and head of U.S. operations for a mobile software firm in India. In less than two years, I realized I wanted to return to school, finish my bachelor’s degree, and deepen my knowledge of the statistical skills my team and I were using every day.

I came to rediscover the passion and energy that had fueled the birth of the technology that led to my first start-up. I asked myself, ‘What was it that had initially inspired and excited me?’ It was the science: the questioning process and the generation of meaningful data. It was seeing patterns behind the numbers; seeing the trends and discrepancies; asking questions and then discovering answers; thinking about what they meant and how they could be used to change something for the better; looking into the unknown and creating new knowledge. It was this process that gave me the most joy.

With this knowledge, I began to talk with people, to ask about the decisions they had made and to listen. I wanted to know how I could take this passion for asking questions and collecting data and make it into a career. I discovered statistics, which, to me, is the art and science of asking questions – and then finding methods to resolve those questions in a systematic way.

I went back to my network and spoke with economists, financial analysts, and biostatisticians – anyone I could find who was trained in using statistics on a daily basis. A pattern emerged: for every financial wizard that spoke about money, I found a biostatistician that had a smile on his face. Biostatisticians were excited about their work, work that was geared towards the public good. I saw how, when working on studies of nutrition or disease, a person naturally develops an understanding of what health is and what brings potential risks. Seeing that excitement, their apparent health and their smiles made me think “this is the place for me.”

As each day passes, I am becoming more satisfied with my choice to be a biostatistician. I have gotten the chance to work on a host of topics, from microarray analysis to AIDS research and clinical trials. The fields of public health and medicine are progressing quickly. To be on the front lines and to be part of the research is a thrilling experience. For those of you who have a desire to learn and to make a real change, I wholeheartedly recommend biostatistics.