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Biostat Alumni Share Wisdom, Advice

By Chris Corcoran

While cutting through the jungle of homework assignments, midterms, finals, oral and written qualifying exams, and a host of other day-to-day concerns, biostatistics students may have a problem seeing a clear path to the future. In the backs of our minds, we sometimes ask ourselves, "What statistical problems will I tackle for my thesis? What am I learning now that will come in handy later? What career options will I have, and which will I choose?" Never fear, you students with darkened minds, we can take comfort and find direction in the hindsight of those who have gone before.

Melissa Begg (ScD '89), for example, took her inspiration from the outstanding teaching of the department. "The attention paid by the Harvard biostatistics department to teaching is extraordinary," she says. As a result, she now teaches at Columbia, where she also gets ample opportunity for collaborative research, primarily in periodontics. While this makes Melissa one of the few of us who enjoys seeing the dentist, the nature of periodontal research also involves using analytical methods for clustered data.

Working for Pfizer Pharmaceutical resulted partly from her interest as a student in clinical trials work, says Marcia Levenstein (ScD '79). She recalls taking a very interesting seminar course with a varied group of students and faculty from both HSPH and the Medical School where they reviewed issues in clinical trials design and reporting. She now reviews and directs the statistical analysis for phase IV studies, mainly having to do with cardiovascular drugs and anti-infectives. Marcia feels that the applied analysis courses are what led her to and best prepared her for her current work.

Likewise, in his work for the NIH, Stuart Baker (ScD '84) has relied heavily on applied classes that he took in discrete data and survival analysis. "Outside of Statistics," he adds, "the course I took in cancer biology has provided invaluable." Stuart spends much of his time involved in cancer screening projects as well as missing data problems.

Interestingly, most graduates, while varied in their career choices, feel that consulting experiences and summer internships are an integral part of a student's education at HSPH. While Marcia Levenstein regrets that she did not have the opportunities that later students had when consulting became a more important part of the curriculum, Stuart Baker advises current students to "get lots of experience in statistical consulting. It helps you figure out what techniques are really useful and which are not. Also, you sometimes come across a non-standard twist to what you originally thought was a standard problem."

So, to all students confused about the future (a group that includes at least myself), take heart in these sage words. As former students have advised us, key in on those courses, or parts of courses, that you find most enjoyable. Attend seminars or classes outside of the biostatistics department to broaden your vision and opportunity. And take full advantage of consulting opportunities to develop your communication skills and strengthen your analytical abilities.