2017 Holiday Message from Xihong Lin & Brent Coull

As we approach the holiday season, we would like to express our warmest appreciation to faculty, students, postdoctoral fellows, staff, alumni, and friends who have contributed to another great year in the Biostatistics Department at the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health.

In May we celebrated our 70th anniversary along with the Statistics Department who was celebrating their 60th anniversary. Members of both departments joined together for a special anniversary event, reflecting on where we have been, celebrating all we have achieved, and looking ahead to the future of our field. Event chairs Sebastien Haneuse & Xiao-Li Meng helped arrange a full day symposium featuring talks by department chairs Xihong Lin and Neil Shephard, senior vice provost Judith Singer, and several distinguished alumni from both departments. Event participants also broke off into teams for a lively trivia game organized by student volunteers Michele Zemplenyi, Tom Madsen, Zach Branson, and Luis Campos. Thank you to all for making this such a memorable day!

Supporting students and recruiting top faculty continues to be the highest priority for the Department. We are actively engaged in a search for two new Assistant/Associate Professors, with the hopes of having these faculty on board in the coming year. We are also pleased to announce that the Department has secured a new partnership with Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, Inc., which has awarded $100,000 to support two of our doctoral students next year. Thank you to Drs. LJ Wei and Tianxi Cai for spearheading this effort.

Promoting diversity remains an important mission of the Department.  Under the leadership of Marcello Pagano, the Summer Program in Biostatistics and Computational Biology has been a great success in furthering that goal. This year, the program brought in 14 undergraduates and 2 post-baccalaureate interns, in addition to 5 visiting faculty from quantitative departments at institutions with a significant underrepresented minority population. After an intensive 6-week program, students and interns presented their research projects at the annual symposium, Pipelines Into Biostatistics. Dr. Pagano also led the extremely successful StatStart Program with the help of doctoral students Sam Tracy, Octavious Talbot, Kelly Mosesso and Alex Ocampo. The program provides high school students from under-represented minority and low-income backgrounds with an introduction to statistical programming.

In an effort to expand our educational reach, Sarah Anoke and Dr. Pagano led a weeklong workshop on Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) for 7 McGoldrick/ARISE. The fellows, who visited in early December from across Africa, were trained in advanced research methods for assessing health outcomes and measuring and evaluating new and existing intervention programs.

We continued to strengthen our commitment to data science this year in several ways. Francesca Dominici was appointed as the co-director of the Harvard Data Science Initiative, where she is helping to foster a rich and cohesive data science community and bring together scholars from different disciplines and schools across the University. We launched a new master’s program in Health Data Science this year, with 16 students in the first cohort arriving this summer. The Program is ably led by Director Jukka-Pekka Onnela and Executive Director Heather Mattie, who have both worked really hard to develop a cohesive curriculum for the program and coordinate its activities with the other two new data science programs across the University. We are already looking forward to the second year of the program, having received almost triple the number of new applications for the 2018-2019 academic year. PhD student Siyuan Ma and Postdoc Boyu Ren were part of the winning team at the Boston Datathon. After spending seven hours wrangling and analyzing numerous genomics datasets, they took home the first place prize of $20,000, and went on to place 3rd in the global competition in New York City.

This fall, the Department launched Lightning Talks– a fun new event featuring 4 rounds of 5-minute talks by department faculty. The talks have been extremely popular and have proven to be a great opportunity for other faculty, students, and staff to get a quick snapshot of current department research in a relaxed, social setting. Thank you to all who have participated to make this new event so successful. Speakers this semester included: Rebecca Betensky, Christoph Lange, Guocheng Yuan, Cory Zigler, Tianxi Cai, Sebastien Haneuse, John Quackenbush, Marcello Pagano, Curtis Huttenhower, Rafa Irizarry, Cyrus Mehta, Jeff Miller, Miguel Hernán, Shirley Liu, Judith Lok, and Giovanni Parmigiani.

The Harvard Catalyst Biostatistics Program had a very productive year under the directorship of Professor Rebecca Betensky and management of Dr. Jai Vartikar. Their 29 Harvard Catalyst statisticians and epidemiologists provided over 930 consultations to investigators at 28 Harvard-affiliated institutions and were instrumental in helping the investigators receive over 20 grants and publish over 80 papers in peer reviewed journals. In May, they submitted the competing renewal of the CTSA grant, receiving a score categorized as “exceptional”. Consequently, they fully expect to continue offering consultations and continuing educational events for another five years.

The Department also continues to innovate in online learning. Funded by a supplement to the Department’s NIGMS-funded interdisciplinary training grant in statistical genetics/genomics and computational biology, departmental faculty John Quackenbush, Curtis Huttenhower, Lorenzo Trippa and research scientist Christine Choirat developed a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) course “Principles, Statistical and Computational Tools for Reproducible Science,” which was launched in the fall. These on-line modules were also employed in a new departmental course, “Reproducible Data Science,” developed by Heather Mattie. This course was offered in flipped format, in which students watch the online material independently and then discuss it and implement the proposed methods in a classroom setting. Miguel Hernán successfully launched his own HarvardX course, “Causal Diagrams: Draw Your Assumptions Before Your Conclusions”, based on EPI 289; “Models for Causal Inference,” a core offering he’s taught for 14 years. The new course teaches simple graphical rules that allow students to use intuitive pictures to improve study design and data analysis for causal inference.

The Department developed several other new courses this year. Andrea Rotnitzky developed and offered the course “Theory and Methods for Causality II,” which was a sequel to her popular first course on the topic. The course covers the concepts behind two connected formal theories to infer causality from data: one based on counterfactuals and another based on graphs. Jeff Miller is developing a new Applied Machine Learning course that will launch this spring as part of the new Health Data Science program. Research Scientist Christine Choirat developed a well-received course on Computing for Big Data, which focused on R packages and other tools for handling massive datasets. Finally, Paige Williams and Erin Lake developed the course “Effective Grant and Research Proposal Writing for Biostatistics Research” that aims to teach doctoral students how to write an F31 grant for continued predoctoral funding, along with general grant writing skills that these students can carry into their future careers.

Another major emphasis in education this year has been on strengthening the entire educational experience of our students beyond the classroom, including mentoring in career development, writing, and public speaking. Erin Lake, an alumna of the doctoral program who assumed the role of Director of Student Development at the beginning of 2017, has established a well-received career development series that includes panel discussions with different visitors from academia, industry, and government, as well as guidance on central issues for junior researchers such as effective strategies for a successful job search, among others. Amanda King and Nicole Levesque continue to offer one-on-one advice for all postdoctoral research fellows and departmental students on their scientific writing and oral presentation skills.

As highlighted in the newsletter, our faculty, postdocs and students have made great strides in research and education, with an impressive list of awards and grants. We would like extend our gratitude to our Directors of Graduate Programs, John QuackenbushPaige Williams, David Wypij, and JP Onnela for all their excellent efforts to advise and mentor our students.

In summary, we are extremely grateful to the faculty, staff, researchers, and students who continually work hard to further the Department’s missions. We have a number of ongoing educational reform activities we plan to unveil in the coming year, so stay tuned!

We encourage alumni and friends of the Department to subscribe to our popular weekly newsletter and to contribute information about your activities so we can share them with the larger Harvard Biostatistics Community. We also invite you to join our online community on Facebook and Twitter and we hope you will join us at our annual receptions at ENAR in March and JSM this summer.

Happy holidays and warmest wishes for a happy and healthy 2018!

Xihong Lin, Chair
Brent Coull, Associate Chair