Refugee from Congo
But life had other plans for Matsouaka, now 34 years old and a second-year master’s student in the Department of Biostatistics at HSPH and current Goldsmith Fellow. Congo’s sole university, Marien Ngouabi, offered no applied mathematics options, because “applied means you have to have computers, and we didn’t have enough money,” he says. So he majored in pure math. In 1993, the year he graduated, fighting broke out in the country in the wake of parliamentary elections. The government eventually sent him and other university-bound students to neighboring countries to continue their education.
Matsouaka traveled northwest to Burkina Faso. By the time he’d earned a master’s degree in algebra, in 1997, the situation in Congo had escalated into a full-scale civil war. And so, though his parents, four sisters, and one brother remained in Brazzaville, Matsouaka moved again, this time with funding to study in Benin, in western Africa, where he completed a second master’s in geometry and lived for almost five years.
Then, during a year-long research fellowship in Belgium, he learned the mathematics of wavelets, which can be used in biostatistical work to analyze brain-imaging data, for example. Biostatistics—and public health, for that matter—were fields he’d never heard of. “In Africa, those kinds of applications are not of use,” he says. “We don’t dream of image processing.”
But he began to see some possibilities. In 2003, soon after his fellowship ended, he and his wife moved to Boston after being granted political refugee status. And though he didn’t know much English, biology, or statistics, he decided to take a chance with the practical career that he’d always wanted. He enrolled in HSPH in the fall of 2005.
Last summer, Matsouaka worked on his first biostatistics project: he ran analyses on data to see whether a particular gene was a useful marker for diagnosing brain tumors and estimating a patient’s chances of survival. Before coming to Harvard, the last biology course Matsouaka had taken was in high school. So he dove in and read articles on this and other biology studies. “I didn’t want to say, ‘This is the way to solve the problem’ and then just crank the machine,” he says. “I wanted to make sure I understood what was behind all the statistics.”
His supervisors on the project, Professor of Biostatistics Rebecca Betensky and biologist Catherine Nutt, an instructor in pathology at Harvard Medical School, say Matsouaka’s willingness to ask questions and do his homework were his strengths—along with “his patience with my need to better understand the biostatistics,” Nutt says. Early on, Matsouaka and Nutt say, their biggest challenge was to clearly define what each was talking about, because nuances in their respective fields were at first difficult to grasp.
Matsouaka will pursue a PhD in biostatistics at Harvard after graduation this spring. He hopes eventually to return to Congo to work on survival studies related to HIV/AIDS or malaria. “I’m not a person who’s going to find a cure for HIV, but I’ll be part of a team,” he says.
Katharine Dunn has reported on advances in science, medicine, and global health for publications that include the Boston Globe, Technology Review, and Harvard Magazine.
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