Apr. 28 2015

Biostatistics' Diamond Jubilee

Department Marks 75th Anniversary with a Daylong Celebration

The Department of Biostatistics at the Mailman School of Public Health celebrated its 75th Anniversary with an afternoon of festivities at Bard Hall on April 24. It was a time to celebrate, honor, and reflect on the Department’s achievements in the field, leadership through the years, and significant potential for the future. In addition to luminaries from the Mailman School and the Department of Statistics, faculty, alumni, students, and staff were on hand to mark the occasion.

“This is an exciting moment for this department and for biostatistics as a field,” said Chair DuBois Bowman. “From big data to personalized medicine: biostatistics provides a set of tools along with a unique framework for critical thinking to extract meaning from data and help guide decisions.” In his welcoming remarks, Bowman commented on the Department ‘s rich history of landmark studies, textbooks, and statistical innovations. Founded in 1940, the Department of Biostatistics, one of the country’s first, preceded the University’s Department of Statistics by six years and has been home to future University leaders, including Melissa Begg, now Vice Provost of Education.

Begg, who is a professor of Biostatistics, reflected on how she has been a Department faculty member for a third of its history by offering some departmental stats. Today, there are nearly 40 members of the faculty, several of whom have been recognized for teaching excellence; there are now five degree programs, summer pipeline programs for undergraduates, and more than 100 graduate students. At the Mailman School, the Department of Biostatistics also has one of the highest rated departments for teaching.

According to Bruce Levin, professor and past chair of Biostatistics, biostatistics is “not just about mathematics—it’s the people.” Early in his career, Levin learned that biostatisticians can save lives. This point was demonstrated by John William Fertig, the School’s first head of Biostatistics, in a series of studies that helped clinicians calibrate the concentration of oxygen needed to treat premature infants—sufficient to save their lives but low enough to prevent blindness from a condition known as retrolental fibroplasia caused by too much oxygen.
Over the years, the way the world thinks of biostatistics has evolved, said Begg, from “kind of weird” to “the sexiest job of the 21st Century”—the latter assessment courtesy of the New York Times and Harvard Business Review. Big data, a topic covered in a keynote speech by Thomas A. Louis, professor of Biostatistics at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has captured the imagination of the public and academia, and biostatistics is poised to lead in burgeoning areas like genomics and precision medicine. “By its very nature, biostatistics is interdisciplinary,” noted Levin.

Biostatistics also plays an increasingly important role within the Mailman School, notably in efforts to find private sources to fund research. According to Roger Vaughan, professor and past interim chair of Biostatistics and current Vice Dean for Academic Advancement, “As we engage with our industry partners, one of the things they continue to highly value is Biostatistics.”

“No school of public health can be a great school without a great biostatistics department,” said Dean Linda P. Fried. “At Columbia, the department of biostatistics is truly essential to the wonderful successes that the Mailman School has achieved over the years.”

The day concluded with faculty research presentations, student practicum projects, and the Distinguished Alumni Award, presented to Petra Kaufmann, a graduate from 2002 who is currently director of the Division of Clinical Innovation with the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the National Institutes of Health.