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Biostat Connections
October 1997

The Department of Biostatistics from the Past to the Future:
A View through the Eyes of its Chair, Nan M. Laird

by Dianne Finkelstein and Evelyn Ophir

The Department of Biostatistics celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, coincidentally as Harvard School of Public Health celebrates its 75th anniversary. The department has evolved in scope and purpose over this period of time, and current Department Chair, Dr. Nan Laird, has been a witness to many of these changes. She provided this reminiscence of the events and philosophical evolution of the Department of Biostatistics.

In 1975, upon completing her Ph.D. in the Department of Statistics at Harvard, Dr. Laird was hired as an Assistant Professor in Biostatistics and as Member in the Center for the Analysis of Health Practices, Department of Health Policy and Management. At that time, the chairperson of the department was Jane Worchester, and there were 11 members of the faculty. A major focus of the teaching mission of the department at that time was to provide statistical courses for the other programs at the School. Students concentrating in Biostatistics took their statistical theory and methods courses at the Department of Statistics in Cambridge. Their doctoral research often focused on solving an important substantive public health problem using new statistical methods. In addition to the teaching responsibilities, the faculty collaborated with faculty in other departments on a variety of projects with a substantial empirical base.

In 1977, the scope and size of the department radically changed when Frederick Mosteller was appointed Chairman. Dr. Mosteller's innovations and new perspectives initiated a series of changes which led ultimately to the transformation of the department into one of the top biostatistics units in the world. Dr. Laird attributes the transformation of the department to two actions by Professor Mosteller: the consolidation of the offices of Biostatistics faculty within contiguous physical space, and the aggressive hiring of faculty in Biostatistics who combined strong training in methodology with extensive experience and interest in applications and collaboration. Professor Mosteller recruited several new faculty including Jim Ware, Christine Waternaux, Larry Thibodeau, and Tom Louis. Then in 1977, Dr. Mosteller recruited Marvin Zelen and the entire Department of Biostatistics from SUNY Buffalo (which some referred to as "Marvin's Baseball Team" although they were actually 12 in number). The immediate impact of this expansion was that there was an opportunity to develop a serious academic program in Biostatistics. Dr. Laird and Christine Waternaux contributed to writing the first student handbook, and Dr. Laird recalls the effort "was quite a bit of labor, and came out as a result of many discussions among faculty about degree requirements." The handbook was one of the important elements in putting together a comprehensive degree program in Biostatistics.

In addition to the development of a curriculum for a rigorous program, it was essential to secure student funding. Through the initiatives of Frederick Mosteller, Marvin Zelen, and Jim Ware, the department succeeded in obtaining student funding from training grants in cancer and environmental health. Even still today, the training grant programs continue to be a major source of funding for our students.

In 1981, Marvin Zelen assumed the position of department chair, and the growth of the department and expansion of its horizons took on new proportions. Professor Zelen brought with him a clear vision of where he wanted to steer the department. "Marvin had clear-cut objectives. He wanted to build a world class department, and accomplished this by paying close attention to whom he hired and promoted. Marvin has always valued well-rounded faculty and insisted on high quality research. He also understood the importance of collaborative work, leadership and intangible contributions to the profession". Under Dr. Zelen's leadership, and following his vision, the department expanded its research and collaborative programs in cancer, the environment, and AIDS.

Since 1977, department faculty have participated in Statistical Coordinating Centers for major cooperative cancerclinical trial groups, including the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG), the CALGB, the RTOG, and the
International Breast Cancer Group. Department members have collaborated with environmental scientists on epidemiological studies of air pollution and health effects and, more recently, department members began to collaborate with scientists from the EPA to design studies and develop statistical methods for analyzing data in reproductive toxicology. In 1989, with a recognition of the international importance of the emerging AIDS epidemic, the department moved into the area of AIDS clinical trials, and today coordinates the Statistical and Data Analysis Center (SDAC) for the bulk of the federally sponsored AIDS clinical trials, within the larger organization of the Center for Biostatistics in AIDS Research (CBAR).

Professor Mosteller and subsequently Professor Zelen provided the vision, leadership, and support to launch these major research programs. Since their inception, these programs have spurred the growth and intellectual strength of the department, provided a wealth of opportunities to produce methodological research, and exposed our students to diverse research applications. Both Professor Mosteller and Professor Zelen understood the importance of creating and nurturing an intellectually-rich environment and accomplished this by selecting faculty with deep interest in both statistical research and biomedical collaboration, and giving the faculty a sense of freedom and responsibility for the direction of the department. The major departmental responsibilities including admissions, advising, curriculum, and faculty searches have always been in the hands of faculty committees. There is a strong sense of community, academic freedom and openness among the faculty and students, where all are encouraged to express their opinions and challenge the status quo.

In 1990, Nan Laird was appointed the Chair of the department. By this time, the department's academic and research programs were firmly in place and the department had grown in size to nearly 50 students, over 30 faculty, and ten postdoctoral fellows. With the expansion of scope led by SDAC's formation in 1989, the department grew to its current size of over 40 faculty members. Dean Harvey Feinberg established two endowed chairs for department members: the Henry Pickering Walcott Professorship for the department chair, and the Fred Mosteller Professorship, which is held by Dean James Ware.

As newly-appointed chair, Dr. Laird expressed her aspiration for the department in the 1990's to continue its academic leadership and recruitment of excellent students in an era of dwindling federally sponsored funding programs. As medical research undergoes a shift from the public to the private sector, the department has begun to forge a new alliance with industry. This exchange has given our students and faculty opportunities to collaborate with various pharmaceutical and biotechnical companies, as well as to participate in workshops such as the enthusiastically attended Schering-Plough Workshop which has focused on state of the art methodology for central issues that arise in the design and analysis of clinical studies. In addition, Dr. Laird has worked with faculty and our industry partners to provide unrestricted funding which will enable new junior faculty to develop their own research agenda.

Each year since 1990, under Dr. Laird's leadership, the department has been sending an increasing number of graduates to positions in academia, government, and industry. Our industrial partnerships and government sponsored projects provide them with the scientific expertise to move into leadership positions in the field. In addition to research programs in cancer and environmental health, the department, under Dr. Laird's leadership, has recently acquired training grants in AIDS and in statistical methods for psychiatric research.

High on Dr. Laird's agenda is diversifying faculty research areas; she has worked to secure funding for new faculty with research interests in psychiatry and environmental health. Dr. Laird's vision for the future is to move into the important new areas of medical research. Recognizing the importance of genetics to medical research, Dr. Laird would like to see the department expand its expertise into this area. She realizes that this would "need a lot of hard work and a commitment, as it takes a critical mass of researchers to establish a new area." In addition to the expansion into new areas of medical research, Dr. Laird would like to explore and establish more collaborative relationships with other departments in the Harvard School of Public Health.

The challenges of providing leadership for an academic department lie in recognizing the important new issues and opportunities in medical and public health research. Each of the chairs of this department has met this challenge with a unique style and vision, and moved the department in distinct and complementary ways. At this 50th anniversary of the department, it is worth pausing to note the innovative direction this department has taken and continues to take into the 21st century.

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