Experiences as a Biostatistician at an Academic Health Center
This column is written for statisticians with master’s degrees and highlights areas of employment that will benefit statisticians at the master’s level. Comments and suggestions should be sent to Megan Murphy, Amstat News managing editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cindy Weng is a biostatistician II, who provides statistical consulting for pediatric clinical and translational research scholars and general pediatricians regarding statistical methods and the conduct of statistical analyses in support of the Study Design and Biostatistics Center at the University of Utah. She earned an MPH degree with an emphasis in biostatistics and epidemiology.
James Grady has many years of research experience as the lead biostatistician for numerous NIH-funded collaborative studies involving clinical and translational science in large-scale, population-based studies. He is a regular reviewer for the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research and currently serves as the director of the biostatistics center for the Connecticut Institute of Clinical and Translational Science.
Take a glance at any published medical article and you will likely see that statistical methods, in terms of study design and analyses, play a major role in its success. Medical research heavily relies on the application of appropriate statistical methods. In addition to the technical aspects of a statistical analysis lays another crucial element: the human element. An effective collaboration between clinical researchers and biostatisticians is an essential aspect of a successful statistical analysis. Here, Cindy Weng and James Grady share how they learned to collaborate, prioritize, and appreciate their work as consultants at academic health centers.
Cindy Weng’s Perspective
When I began working at the Study Design and Biostatistics Center (SDBC), I was fortunate to have mentors who were experienced biostatisticians in medical research. They collaborated effectively with medical researchers—by using innovative research techniques—in various aspects of medicine, basic science, study design, statistical methods, epidemiology, and causal inference in diversified medical areas. At that time, I thought I was well prepared to take on the responsibilities of my new job; however, I was quickly surprised by how little I knew about certain aspects of statistical methodology and design, particularly sample size and power analysis. We seemed to cover little of this in my graduate statistics program. In addition, nonstatistical skills such as consulting, effective nonverbal and verbal communication, and business and management knowledge are essential to the employed biostatistician today.
My first assigned project had to do with sample size and power determination for a tiny study, around five patients. The study used a crossover design to compare the effect of noninvasive cortical stimulation among children with hemiplegic cerebral palsy (CP) in an intervention to several sham groups. A paired t-test to determine power of the study seemed to be an elementary statistical problem to solve for most biostatisticians, but at that time, was difficult for me. Therefore, I sought out my mentors’ guidance on not only how to approach this specific problem, but on research study methodology as well so I could further educate myself. I continue to learn and expand my knowledge on this topic where I can. In fact, I recently discovered a book titled Sample Size Calculations in Clinical Research—written by Shein-Chung Chow, Jun Shao, and Hansheng Wang—that has proven to be useful.
I think continually expanding your skill set is necessary in today’s competitive world.
Since earning my MPH degree with an emphasis in biostatistics, I have developed expertise while assisting in statistical analyses of epidemiologic and observational studies. There are many rewards that come from my career, including direct interaction with physician scientists, contributing statistical concepts to studies, and seeing results from these studies published in prestigious journals, regardless of my authorship status. I will continue developing my expertise by taking additional education courses at JSM and my local university.
In fact, I expect to earn a comparative effectiveness research certificate in the summer of 2013. Comparative effectiveness research (CER) compares existing health care interventions to determine the benefit and harm of each and the most effective intervention to treat patients on an individual basis. The promise of CER to biostatisticians is that it enables us to best assist researchers in designing studies that can support patients, physicians, policymakers, and resource planners to make practical medical decisions. Through this certificate, I hope to continually develop professionally and would like to fulfill my goal of becoming a CER expert.
To broaden my experience as a biostatistician, I am an active member of the ASA Section on Statistical Consulting. I also have been enjoying volunteering for Statistics without Borders (SWB). My first project with this organization considered the effect of humanitarian aid given by the International Rescue Committee at Pakistan refugee camps. The objective was to compare U5 mortality of children born to women ages 15–49. With the number of volunteers and amount of statistical expertise at SWB, the SWB New Projects Committee would like to contact nonprofit organizations in need of statistical consulting. I am a member of the SWB New Projects Committee and am assigned to the CharityFactors organization. Through these activities, I hope to gain more experience in communicating, collaborating, and working with nonprofit organizations.
Jamie Grady’s Perspective
Beginning with graduate school, I have 25 years of experience consulting at academic health centers. Projects have been both big and small, and the variety of clients fit my personality, as I enjoy juggling many activities at once. Success in this environment requires flexibility—client investigators don’t always plan things perfectly—and you need to be accommodating.
Interact: One rewarding aspect for biostatisticians at academic centers is being involved in the educational mission of a university and interacting with other medical faculty, students, and postdocs. The many projects that come about from basic science and clinical research studies at a health science center allow you to use many of the statistical methods learned in graduate school. Sometimes, I feel like a generalist on the job; I am on the surface of many statistical applications, but not deep into any of them. However, in my experience, what may seem like a quick consult is usually much appreciated by the client.
Write: Another challenge in academia is being asked to write a statistical section of a manuscript or grant proposal, sometimes without extensive background information or knowledge of the subject area. These investigators might only use statisticians sporadically, every few years when they need to submit a new grant. This is the reality of the consulting statistician. Of course, it is not the preferred arrangement for an ongoing collaboration, but it can be the beginning of one. Consulting statisticians can provide assistance when planning studies, an exercise that is often quite rewarding.
Prioritize: Experience will give you the ability to prioritize. You might need to go the extra mile for the highly funded senior investigator’s grant; maybe not for the fellow who needs a ‘quick analysis’ for a poster submission to a conference. Experience on the job gives you confidence in making these decisions and prioritizing your effort.
Reward: An ongoing challenge is getting credit for consultations and collaborations on grants. Some universities are changing their tenure and promotion criteria to reflect the value of collaborators. Be sure to understand how your institution views and/or rewards collaborations when planning your career.
Statistical consulting and collaboration will continue to play a major role for some statisticians, and may be the basis of their jobs. Having good mentors when you enter the field of statistical consulting can help foster a successful career. Becoming a person with strong statistical training who also can communicate effectively to nonstatisticians will be a strong asset to any business, industry, or academic workplace. Last but not least, continuing education and attending conferences help tie this all together by allowing you to stay current, develop collegial relationships, and improve your skill set.
For more information about consulting and the statistician-client relationship, please visit the ASA Consulting Section for information or to order a brochure. You can give a copy to your clients as well.