Dr. Erin Lake: New Director of Student Development

Dr. Erin (Kammann) Lake, Sc.D. ’01
Director of Student Development
Instructor, Department of Biostatistics

Welcome back to the department!  

Thank you, this department is incredibly dear to me.  It is comprised of a unique and very special group of faculty, students and staff.  I have enjoyed reconnecting with familiar faces and getting to know the newer folks.

What is your history in the department?  

I was a doctoral student in biostatistics from 1997 to 2001.  Matt Wand (now back in his native Australia) was my dissertation advisor.

After defending my thesis ’Geoadditive and Robust Mixed Models’ I graduated with an Sc.D.  I believe my class was the last to receive the Sc.D. title before it changed to the Ph.D.  To put this in a clearer perspective, I was in Jelena’s 3rd cohort of doctoral students!

What led you to the field of biostatistics?

Math has always been in my family.  My grandfather was a graduate student of the group that later became the Courant Institute at NYU.  My dad was a math teacher early in his career, and I have memories of having to stay after school with the math team he coached.  I was invited to work through math problems with them.  They were older than me and I’m not sure how I felt about it all, but my dad was my ride home!

In college I double majored in math and psychology and took all of the pre-med requirements.  I was planning on medical school, but got so interested in math that I applied to PhD programs in math instead, and that’s where I landed.

After completing the core coursework and passing the qualifying exams for a math doctorate, I happened to take a statistical modeling class, which led to an extra project involving Lyme disease, which led to further coursework and projects.  I had taken classes such as measure theory, and probability, but not with an applied element before.  I was suddenly made aware of the essence of the field of statistics.  It rarely stands alone.  It seems always connected with problems and methods of other fields of science, drawing inspiration from them and in turn inspiring them.  I realized that I wanted to pursue the remainder of my doctoral work in statistics relevant to public health and medicine, and so that is what I did, here at Harvard.

What were your options upon graduating from HSPH? 

Before graduating I interviewed both in academia and industry.  Each route seemed interesting to me, I got wonderful offers in both, and it was a difficult decision.  However, in the end I joined a small biotech in Cambridge, MA.  The smaller size, innovative culture and dynamic role just felt right to me then.  It was neat to consider joining a team that would potentially bring the pivotal study for the company’s main pipeline to fruition, through the regulatory process, and onto market for the benefit of those not just participating in a trial.  We ultimately did that, which was pretty cool.

What experience did you gain after HSPH? 

I worked in biotech for a while on extended release formulations targeting central nervous system diseases.  Such diseases are complicated, and sustained release delivery facilitates improved compliance and better outcomes.  It meant a lot to me that we were working on something that would directly impact the lives of our study participants, and beyond.  We employed innovative randomization and survival techniques, among other emerging methodologies, and worked closely with the FDA on these.

My husband (who also graduated from the department) and I also started a consulting business and took on some neat projects.  Eventually I moved away from biotech and focused primarily on consulting.  I wanted to be hands on when it came to raising our three kids, who are currently 9, 12 and 13, and this was one path that allowed flexibility for that.

What are your main responsibilities in the Department right now?

First, having the opportunity to give back in some way to a department that has given me so much, is gratifying. Currently I am part time here in the department, and my initial priorities include the advisement and support of both masters and doctoral students, career development, some teaching, admissions, and possibly assessment of curriculum and degree programs.  I would also like to help build partnerships for the department with industry in ways that would be educational for our students.

What do you hope to accomplish in your first 100 days’? 

I have many goals!  First and foremost I am listening and learning in order to discern where to focus efforts.  I am also trying to get up to speed on the research interests of the newer faculty that have joined since I graduated, and updated on the work of faculty that were here when I was.  Also high on my list is collaborating with alumni and other statisticians in the area on ways to bring their insight, experience and wisdom to our students.

Most importantly I would like to get to know the students better, and have enjoyed attending student-faculty lunches, working groups, and other events.  I will also be posting office hours.  My office is 402.  Please stop by and say hello!

Going back to your time as a student in the department – do any extracurricular experiences stand out?

I would have to say the FWG (Frisbee Working Group—see bottom of ’99 Biostats Newsletter ) ultimate frisbee games, and doubles tennis at Vanderbilt courts with Brent, Nan, and Matt (and sometimes Christoph) are among my favorites.

Departmental parties up at the lake home of our Steve and Regina Lagakos are particularly cherished memories.

Did you have any academic experiences here that were more defining than others?

I think that moment when my advisor Matt and I saw a clear path toward melding spatial statistics with additive models in the mixed model framework (from which our ‘Geoadditive model’ was born)—that was a game-changer for me as a student.  To see the interplays one could effectively forge between areas within the field, the theory one could fall back on as a guide, and the myriad applications one could then roll out, were all so exciting!

I also greatly enjoyed my summer project guided by Paige, who is a fabulous teacher and mentor.  Working with her and members of the ACTG was fascinating and led to a publication and funding to attend a professional meeting.

Lastly, writing a fun paper on cluster randomization with Neil Klar, Rebecca Betensky, and my not-quite-yet-then-husband Steve, and then later utilizing that very result again in some consulting work years later—that was really neat.

Do you have teaching experience?

Teaching has always been a real calling for me.  It is a challenge to figure out how best to deliver a concept in such a way that other minds can absorb it and even feel inspired or empowered by it.  During my math training I taught a lot of calculus and other basic math courses, and loved being a TA for courses here in the department.

I received the Teaching Assistant of the Year award at HSPH one year.  It was an incredible honor; teaching is very important and inspiring to me.  I always want to be a better teacher.  We are all teachers to some degree.  My mentors and teachers in biostatistics were some of the faculty who worked extremely hard to advance and evolve this department into the world leader it is today.  They are so inspiring and such selfless teachers.

What do you enjoy outside of work?

Spending time with my husband Steve and our 3 kids is always an adventure!  We do a lot of running, biking, hiking and XC skiing, and there is always someone loudly jamming out Beethoven or Mozart or Gershwin on the piano, math problems going on somewhere in the house, ski waxing, legos, Bananagrams, basketball or soccer in the yard—there is a lot going on all the time!  I also am a lifelong runner and train with some of the same friends I began running with in the late 90s while in graduate school here.  The only difference is that now we run at 5:35am because life is too busy otherwise!  (I really enjoy seeing Marcello who is often out running on Heartbreak Hill at that time!) We have competed in many races over the years, but the 200 mile RTB relay from the White Mountains to Hampton Beach, NH in September is my favorite.  There are roughly 600 teams and we place 1st in our Masters category and in the top 10 overall, generally finishing in 24 hours.  It is crazy but we love it!  My kids have picked up on the running and are much more talented runners than I ever was.  I also really love quilting and sewing in general, as well as painting, but have little time for those now.

As an alumna of this department now working here, what sage advice can you offer our current students?

Come in with a wide open mind and try to learn as much as possible from each person you have contact with as a graduate student, either in the department or elsewhere in the field.  You will always get the best experience that way.  Take advantage of the many learning opportunities around you.  There are amazing people here who care deeply about the field, science, public health, and about students.  This includes faculty, and also fellow students.  I was constantly in awe of my peers who were doing incredible work while here in the department, and who have since gone so far—I am still learning from them.  Learn the history of the department—it’s very interesting!  Be active doing things that you enjoy, and take good care of yourselves.  I look forward to meeting you!