Q&A With Paige Williams

Get to know more about Senior Lecturer and new Graduate Director of Studies, Paige Williams.

Where did you grow up?  Can you point to something in your life that may have influenced your decision to study biostatistics?

I grew up in Glastonbury, Connecticut, a suburb of Hartford, which was known as “the insurance capital of the world”.  My dad worked for Travelers Insurance Company as an actuary.  Despite the fact that the job of actuary kept coming out on top of the list of occupations in terms of overall compensation and quality of life, I thought I would never do something so boring as calculating statistics, lifetables, risk of events, etc.  Little did I know what the future had in store for me…

What would you like to share about your own educational background or experience?  Any memories from your own years as a PhD or SM student?

I had always wanted to go to Duke University, but agreed to visit University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill since that was where my dad went to school.  As soon as I visited the campus, I knew that’s where I belonged.  As an entering Freshman, I had not considered “Public Health” and didn’t even really know what it was, but it was fortuitous that I ended up at a place with such an outstanding School of Public Health.  I heard about biostatistics in my first freshman calculus class and by the end of my freshman year I had switched from a major of Mathematics to Biostatistics.  UNC had one of the first undergraduate programs in Biostatistics and it seemed a perfect fit for me.  I went on to get both my Masters degree and PhD from UNC School of Public Health.  Being located in Research Triangle Park was also a great benefit; I worked at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and did my thesis with one of the NIEHS statisticians, Chris Portier.  As a PhD student I was president of the Biostatistics Student Association; although we tried to plan statistically-oriented events we mostly ended up watching Tarheel basketball games (this was when Michael Jordan played for UNC, so it was hard not to be a hoops fan). 

How long have you lived in the Boston area and how long have you worked in the Department of Biostatistics?

I came to Boston in January 1991, after completing a postdoc at the DeutchesKrebzforschungzentrum (German Cancer Research Center) in Heidelberg, Germany.  I found a place to live and then took a vacation hiking in Yosemite, coming back to start as an Assistant Professor in March 1991.  So I’ve lived here in Boston and have been in the Biostatistics Department for almost 25 years.  

What are your own research interests? 

Although my doctoral research was more closely tied to environmental statistics, when I arrived at HSPH there was a big need for faculty to support the large clinical trials coordinating center (SDAC) that was just getting off the ground for the U.S. AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG).  So I ended up working primarily on design and analysis of AIDS and HIV-related clinical trials, and was motivated by some of the problems that arose.  For example, I worked on development of methods for sequential monitoring of clinical trials with multiple survival outcomes.  I’ve maintained my interest in methods for environmental statistics, but over time I’ve shifted my research from animal bioassay studies and risk assessment more to environmental epidemiology and long term cohort studies.  I now work primarily in HIV-related cohort studies of children, and in both environmental and HIV/AIDS-related studies, I focus my research on reproductive, growth and developmental outcomes.  My statistical research in these topics has focused on accounting for clustered data and multiple, sometimes hierarchical, outcomes.   Compared to many of the faculty in our department, I tend to be at the very applied end of the spectrum.

How would you summarize what your job entails? 

I conduct statistical research to evaluate the effects of environmental and HIV-related exposures on health outcomes, particularly in women and children, and oversee the doctoral program in biostatistics as its new director within the Biostatistics department. 

As the new Graduate Director of Studies (GDS) in the Biostatistics department, I feel my role is to make sure all of the doctoral students are able to reach their full potential in terms of creative, innovative, and practical biostatistical research that will have a positive impact on our public health.

How do you see our PhD program evolving, especially given rapid changes in the field of biostatistics? 

Given the “Big Data” initiative at Harvard University as a whole and within our department in particular, I see our program evolving to place greater emphasis on rigorous computational training, and development of appropriate statistical methods to handle high dimensional data that is becoming more common in our work. 

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The thing I enjoy most about this position is the flexibility to not only set my own hours, but to set my own research goals and pursue my interests.  As in any job, there is always a need to complete administrative tasks which can be tedious, but they don’t in the end take away from the perspective that I’m in the driver’s seat in terms of my own research.  I still wake up every day excited to go to work.  The other thing I enjoy most about my job is working with students one- on-one.  The students in our department are really outstanding and I’m constantly impressed by their creativity and breadth of experience and expertise.

What do you enjoy outside of work?

I like spending time with my two teenage daughters and of course my husband, Michael Hughes.  I enjoy doing just about anything outdoors, including biking, hiking, and kayaking.  Our family is also very active in orienteering, which is when you run around in the woods using a compass to find certain locations on a map in the correct order.  I also enjoying making pottery (we have cabinets full of homemade bowls), and I’m a voracious reader of current fiction.