"It takes most students a few years to understand the link between theory and application, and to grasp that the best research comes out of working on real-world problems," says Sánchez's adviser, Harvard School of Public Health Professor of Biostatistics Louise Ryan. "Brisa already understands that."
From a Mexican Border
But it wasn't until 1999, between her junior and senior years as a theoretical math major at the University of Texas–El Paso, that Sánchez put the conceptual and the concrete together in terms of a career. That summer, she was one of 20 minority students selected to attend Cornell University's Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute, where she helped assess the usefulness of prostate-specific antigen ("PSA") in detecting prostate cancer. Her academic mentors not only showed her how to apply math to medicine, but also encouraged her to pursue research.
"That was a turning point. I thought, 'Maybe I have the aptitude to do pure math, but I want to be closer to the people,'" says Sanchez, who nixed thoughts of teaching secondary school math or attending a pure-math graduate program after that. "I wanted to be closer to real data, closer to public health."
At HSPH, Sánchez is working to make structural equation models (SEMs) used in social science "more robust"--that is, less dependent on the assumptions that define variables and relationships between them, such as the assumption that there's a linear relationship between environmental exposure and health outcomes. Her goal is to apply SEMs to questions in environmental health, where the sheer number of variables can make standard statistical analysis unwieldy. Social scientists, for example, use SEMs to derive intelligence quotients--to take the results of, say, five intelligence tests and compute a single score. Sanchez wants to adapt this same distillation process to environmental science.
Examining Fetal Lead
"There are so many results out there. How can we synthesize them?" says Sánchez, with a smile that lights up her Cambridge living room. "That's where I come in."
Hu is impressed not
only with Sánchez's quantitative
and teaching skills--she's mentoring doctoral and post-doctoral trainees--but
also with her commitment to what he calls "the broader social
implications of research."
In the process, Sánchez also hopes to develop and apply statistical methods that correct for errors in measurement. "When your data is measured with a degree of error, you are less able to quantify the relationships between variables, and your conclusion becomes a lot weaker," she explains. "In the environmental setting, for example, we know that if there's measurement error for lead in the mother's bones, the relationship between fetal exposure to lead and neurodevelopment will be clouded."
What's enabled Sánchez to hit the ground running, notes Louise Ryan, is her grasp of the collaborative process, as demonstrated in another project that entails measuring exposure among newborns in intensive-care units to near-ubiquitous compounds called phthalates. "Brisa's willing to dive in and get her hands dirty," says Ryan. But to hear Sánchez tell it, the collaborative nature of biostatistics is just part of its attraction. "The best thing about being a statistician," she says, quoting the field's legendary John W. Tukey, "is that you get to play in everyone else's backyard."
"There's such a mix of things going on," Sánchez says, tallying up the advantages HSPH has to offer. "It's amazing, the number of people who are bringing biostatistics to all areas, from AIDS to cancer research to neurostatistics to computational biology. So many choices!"
Thea Singer has written about health, science, and the arts for the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Natural Health and other publications.
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