Apr. 25 2019

Gen Li, assistant professor of Biostatistics at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, is the inaugural recipient of the Sanford Bolton Award, recognizing his expertise in integrating diverse data types to provide valuable clinical insights. The award is named in honor of Sanford Bolton, MS ‘66, a Columbia Mailman alumnus who was a leader in the field of pharmaceutical statistics.

In a recent study of melanoma patients, Li collaborated with oncologists to combine information collected through imaging tests and genetics. The result, published in the journal Cancer Immunology Research, demonstrated the technique’s ability to offer a more accurate prognosis.

“In our age of Big Data, size isn’t everything,” he says. “Digesting the sheer volume of information often isn’t as challenging as pulling together multiple data sources into a coherent picture.”

Li earned his PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015; that same year he joined the Biostatistics faculty at Columbia Mailman. In 2016, he received the School’s Calderone Junior Faculty Award, which provided funding for his melanoma study.  Going forward, he is interested in exploring areas such as the connections between imaging studies and genetics, and between a variety of “omic” markers related to DNA (genome), RNA (transcriptome), microbiome, and proteins (proteome).

Currently, he is working to develop novel statistical methods to investigate the relationships between different types of genetic data. To advance this research, he is a member of the Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTEx) consortium, a National Institutes of Health Common Fund program aimed at improving genome-wide association studies by accounting for various disease pathways.

“The goal,” he says, “is to understand how these various molecular levels interact with each other to drive the disease outcome. We want to trace the whole pathway of disease.”


Sanford Bolton earned his PhD in 1958 from the University of Wisconsin and MS from Columbia in 1966. His career spanned academia and industry: he served on the faculty of the University Rhode Island, Kingston, and St. John’s University; later he founded the company Hygrosol, which developed techniques to bring new drugs to the generics market. He co-authored the textbook, “Pharmaceutical Statistics,” which was first published in 1984 and subsequently released in multiple editions. In the preface, Bolton, who died in 2011, credited the mentorship of John Fertig, the first Biostatistics chair at Columbia. Both men are named in the Sanford Bolton-John Fertig Award, given to the top doctoral dissertation in Biostatistics each year. Bolton was also the first benefactor of the BEST Diversity Program, a summer program for undergraduate students from backgrounds underrepresented in public health research.

Ken Cheung, professor and interim chair of biostatistics says, “The Sanford Bolton Award is a testament to the power of innovative biostatisticians to improve the health and well-being of patients and populations.”