Message from the Chairs

John Quackenbush and Brent Coull

As 2023 draws to a close, we wanted to reflect on some of events, achievements, and milestones of the past twelve months. In many ways, 2023 was a year of challenges and opportunities that gave members of our department a chance to shine.

It is sort of ironic that in our reflection last year, we were celebrating the start of a return to normalcy post-COVID in which we saw increasing numbers of faculty, staff, postdocs, research scientists, and students returning to the Department in-person. While many of us were very happy to see so many of our friends and colleagues on a regular basis, it seemed as if 2023 wanted no part of “normalcy.” No sooner had we turned the page on the calendar then a deep-freeze set in, bursting a pipe in the ceiling and flooding most of our space in Building 2. With everyone advised to stay home until the damage could be repaired, we had to wait til the early Spring for true normalcy.

Members of our department responded to the challenge and we began to think creatively about what we could do together. Once we were able to return to the building, the faculty voted for a Thursday “anchor day,” and many members come in much more than a single day a week. The faculty and staff worked together to plan events that would create opportunities for people to interact, and students organized events away from the School. Nima Hejazi and Rui Duan devised and implemented a creative re-envisioning of our departmental colloquium series, streamlining existing seminars, colloquia, and lightning talks into a cohesive weekly series that also includes social events for attendees and speakers. And we even started a new tradition with the First Annual Biostatistics Ugly Sweater Day!

Ugly Sweater Day
Ugly Sweater contestants!

As the fall semester winds down, with people gathering on the breezeway, seminars packed, social events being planned, and more faculty and staff members in their offices, it certainly feels like we have transitioned away from many of 2023’s demons.

Of course, there were other changes in the past year. Two of our most distinguished colleagues, Victor DeGruttola and Marcello Pagano, formally retired and will be greatly missed. Not only pioneers in their fields, both contributed substantially to culture and climate in the department. In addition, Rong Ma joined the department as an Assistant Professor this summer. Rong brings extremely strong research background at the interface between statistics and biomedical data science, including high-dimensional embedding, manifold learning algorithms, and principled and interpretable machine learning methods for single-cell omics, microbiomics, and immunology. We also saw Jeff Miller promoted to Associate Professor, Lorenzo Trippa, JP Onnela, and Liming Liang promoted to Professor, and Heather Mattie appointed as Director of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (EDIB) Programs in the Department of Biostatistics.

The Department has continued its emphasis on understanding and addressing student mental health issues with a student-led survey, the results of which were shared with the faculty and will continue to be an area of focus in the coming year. And we have continued to make progress in our EDIB efforts, including new strategies for outreach to prospective students, a robust StatStart program for high school students, and a 29th offering of our Summer Pipelines Program (thanks to Marcello and Priti Thareja for another stellar year). Please be on the lookout for announcements of plans for a special 30th anniversary celebration of this program in 2024!

In May, we bid farewell to another cohort of outstanding SM and PhD graduates, and in August we welcomed an amazing group of new students who will continue to challenge the department’s faculty to think in new and creative ways. Our faculty, postdocs, and students continue to publish outstanding new research, to receive highly innovative grants in a very competitive environment, and to provide leadership in quantitative and interdisciplinary research. Please see the numerous examples of these existing initiatives elsewhere in this end-of-year summary.

And of course we can’t neglect the important role played by the members of our administrative and finance teams. Some new roles assumed by the team included Shaina Andelman becoming our new Director of Administration (starting the day before the flood!) and Jacqui Viscarello becoming the Assistant Director of Finance. Reclassified roles included Amanda King to Program Manager and Katie Pietrini to Administrative and Event Coordinator. We also were very fortunate to welcome Sagar Bhagwat as a Senior Grants and Contracts Manager and Daniel Cohen as an Administrative Assistant. We could not have accomplished any of what we did without all of the staff’s amazing support.

It has been truly inspiring to see members of our department supporting each other independent of our individual backgrounds and recognizing that we are all here working together to improve human health through the development and application of quantitative methods and in training the next generation of leaders in the field.

Finally, we want to thank each and every one of you for being amazing friends, colleagues, and collaborators. As leaders in the department, we could not do what we do without your help, input, insight, and involvement. And while we try to make perfect decisions, we do appreciate your patience and tolerance when we don’t.

For now, we want to wish everyone a restful winter break and hope that you take at least some time for yourself, your friends, and your families. Let’s look forward to a healthy, happy, and productive 2024 together.

John and Brent