Aug. 24 2015

Biostatistics: Balancing the Equation Through Diversity

There is no simple formula for becoming a biostatistician. But this summer, 28 college students got a promising start in an eight-week introduction to the field at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.

The Biostatistics and Epidemiology Summer Training diversity program (BEST) and the Columbia Summer Institute for Training in Biostatistics (CSIBS) share a common goal: to bring a more diverse group of students to STEM fields and to public health research. The results speak for themselves: Among the 137 undergraduates from underrepresented communities who have completed these federally funded programs since 2008, 75 percent report either working in STEM fields, pursuing an advanced graduate degree in public health, or are still in school. One hundred percent of this year’s graduates say they intend to pursue a degree in public health.

Roger Vaughan, vice dean for academic advancement, professor of Biostatistics, and one of the program’s original architects, explains that the goal is to give students “an appreciation for the wisdom of critical thinking and how valuable quantitative methods and collaborations are in advancing science,” in an environment where “all around them they see highly accomplished people who look just like them.”

After studying the basics of public health and biostatistics in the classroom, BEST/CSIBS students join with faculty from Mailman and the Columbia University Medical Center on real-world research, tackling issues from depression to heart disease.   

This summer, Nadiya Pavlishyn, who recently earned a bachelor’s degree from SUNY Stony Brook in applied math and statistics with a double major in economics, worked with pediatrician Teresa Lee to analyze the genetics of cardiomyopathy. “The most interesting thing was actually using what we learned about statistics specifically for our project,” said Pavlishyn.

Daniel Paredes, a junior from Johns Hopkins, looked at breast cancer screening and health behaviors among Latina women with Ana Abraido-Lanza, associate professor of Sociomedical Sciences, and doctoral student Brennan Rhodes-Bratton. “This program has changed my experience with research,” Paredes said. “It made me eager to be a part of translating research into action in the health industry and politics.”

With guidance from Assistant Professor of Epidemiology Dana March, Grant Conway analyzed ways to reduce depression among Hispanic caregivers who work with dementia patients. “I saw data from a real project being modeled into an equation to predict the depressive symptoms of caregivers,” said Conway.

Conway, who is studying political science and education with a minor in math, is about to enter his final year at American University. Prior to CSIBS, he considered becoming teacher after graduation. Now he plans to go straight into a graduate program in biostatistics.

“I’ve done research on my own in previous summers,” said Conway, “but this was the first time I worked with peers and people that were all passionate about the same thing.”