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Member Spotlight – Marcia Levenstein

1 May 2013 357 views No Comment
Megan Murphy, ASA Communications Manager


    When Marcia Levenstein entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, her plan was to become a doctor, but during her third year she heard about a biostatistics course her roommate at the time was taking, and she was intrigued. “It combined math and biology, which was great for me,” she said. “My father suggested I consider graduate school in biostatistics, so I sent out my applications and followed this path. It turned out to be a great fit for me, combining two of my interests and primarily leveraging my math capabilities.”

    From there, she earned her master’s in biostatistics at The University of North Carolina and her PhD in biostatistics from the Harvard School of Public Health. In December of 2012, after several years working in clinical research arena, she earned a master’s of bioethics from the University of Pennsylvania. “Throughout most of my career, I had focused on statistical aspects of clinical research and thought a master’s in bioethics would give me a new lens through which I would consider clinical research,” Levenstein said. “Bioethics provided me with an expanded framework and set of tools for analyzing issues, coupled with a broad understanding of emerging bioethical issues that are relevant to clinical research.”

    After graduate school, Levenstein landed a job as a biostatistician for an epidemiological research company, The American Health Foundation. “This was founded by a physician who did early epidemiological research identifying the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer,” she said. “The company did both epidemiological as well as scientific research in humans animals.”

    Although she was mostly involved in epidemiology, she did have the opportunity to work with the scientific researchers, as well. “It provided the opportunity to apply what I had learned in graduate school to real-world questions. We were able to see similar findings in both the epidemiological and scientific research.”

    While working at The American Health Foundation, Levenstein also began a multi-year consulting relationship with a group of dermatologists in New York. She provided statistical support for their observational research. “As a consultant, the key skill I developed was how to work independently. I didn’t have a statistical manager to review my work. I learned how to interact with scientists/physicians to define their objectives so I could translate them into statistical questions we could answer,” Levenstein said. “Since I was working with multiple researchers, I learned how to jointly prioritize the work.”

    Levenstein currently works at Pfizer as vice president of statistics and continues to sharpen her craft. While she directly supported clinical trials as a project statistician this included the programming skills she learned in graduate school. “A statistician needs to provide direction to programmers and data managers to ensure that data collected meets the needs of the clinical research program,” she said. “To do this, the statistician needs to have a working knowledge of programming to be able to provide or review programming specifications to a statistical programmer or do the programming themselves. They also need to understand the implications of data management decisions on data quality and integrity so they are comfortable that the data being used are fit for purpose.”

    While increasing her technical knowledge at Pfizer, Levenstein also developed a broader set of skills she would not have had, had she limited herself to just statistical roles. “At Pfizer, I had the chance to work on global teams and be successful in areas outside of statistics. I have led cross-functional departments, including global biometrics groups and development operations,” she said. “It is important to be able to lead groups and influence without authority. Developing strong management and leadership skills is critical to advancing through a leadership career path.”

    When asked what additional skills were needed to advance as a clinical statistician, she noted, “strong statistical skills, understanding of clinical trials, problemsolving skills, good communication and collaboration skills.”

    Levenstein also advised learning interpersonal skills. “Be open to understanding nonstatistical aspects that will help you succeed in your job,” she said. “It is important to understand the cultural aspects of your work environment so you can develop strong bonds with colleagues on your teams. Focus on how you can contribute through your statistical knowledge to achieve the team’s goals.”

    In addition to communication skills, the clinical statistician needs to contribute to all aspects of the project, not just the technical. “Develops skills necessary to explain technical issues in nontechnical language to clinicians and other team members to influence decisionmaking beyond the individual study level (e.g., content of clinical development plans, determinations that a clinical data package meets submission requirements, recommendations for using aggregated data to answer scientific questions).”

    Levenstein continues to improve health care by combining her interest in biology and math. She has collaborated with a number of innovative scientists and highly motivated individuals with the common goal of bringing valued medicines to patients; however, she also knows statistics plays a key role in understanding medicine. “It is critical for us to continue to expand our understanding of benefit/risk as medicines are used and help target them to the patients who will gain the most from them,” she said. “Statisticians can influence decisions and contribute broadly to the success of a company. We need to demonstrate that we can bring value to the organization.”

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