In celebration of Black History Month, the American Statistical Association has recognized a group of 12 Black/African American professors, researchers, volunteers, and health care professionals who have made tremendous contributions to the statistics field. We are extremely proud that of the 12 people featured, 4 are members of our Harvard Biostats community. We will be featuring their interviews over the next few weeks.
Alumna ALISA STEPHENS-SHIELDS, PhD ’12 Affiliation: Assistant Professor of Biostatistics, Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Informatics, Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine Education: BS, Mathematics (Spanish minor), University of Maryland AM, Biostatistics, Harvard University PhD, Biostatistics, Harvard University
I was born the morning after Christmas, which is why my parents and two older brothers always called me a late gift. We lived in Teaneck, New Jersey, where my mom—a stay-at-home mom from Jamaica—and dad—a civil engineer who grew up humbly in Jersey City—decided to settle. Our house bustled with activity; neighborhood kids were always around, playing in the yard or huddled over the latest Nintendo game.My brothers and I loved Sierra On-Line computer games. One of my favorites was the Island of Dr. Brain, a puzzle adventure that introduced me to the Tower of Hanoi. I was elated the first time I arranged all the discs on the right pole and then again when I determined how to complete the task in the minimum number of moves. Through various games and activities, I learned I enjoy problem-solving and finding patterns, and I had tremendous family support in cultivating these interests academically. As a graduating senior at Teaneck High, I declined offers of admission to Princeton, Yale, and my dream school—the University of Pennsylvania—to accept a full scholarship to the University of Maryland, College Park. This decision freed me to seek opportunities because of interest rather than need. I discovered the thrill of contributing to knowledge through research during a first-year summer job in the lab of a theoretical ecologist. When I stumbled across the career profile of a biostatistician in my junior year, I recalled an earlier conversation with a dormitory floormate about public health being the study of health in populations, rather than individuals. A summer research experience at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey the following summer confirmed my interest, and I continued to pursue biostatistics as a part-time research assistant at the National Cancer Institute in the spring of my senior year. After a gap year that included a six-month community service immersion in Costa Rica, I enrolled in the doctoral program in biostatistics at Harvard University. Although I am now nearly a decade out of graduate school, one of my proudest moments is still my dissertation defense. Earning my doctorate is the hardest thing I have done by choice. Having always been a strong student, I was unused to feeling completely lost or stuck. Previously, I never thought about quitting something I started. Reaching the other side of it was extremely gratifying, and I emerged a capable statistician, equipped to be impactful in many streams of research. It was also meaningful that my family saw firsthand how I expertly fielded questions. I am also proud of contributing to the success of students I have tutored and mentored, including high-school and college classmates, my older brother as he applied to business school, and the biostatistics graduate students whom I have formally and informally mentored through publications and presentations and into professional positions.