Strength in numbers

Octavious Smiley

Octavious Smiley, PhD ’23, is dedicated to helping the next generation of minority students excel in the field of biostatistics

April 13, 2023 – As a young child, Octavious Smiley thought that negative numbers were cool.

Even before he was in kindergarten, he would look forward to his older sister coming back from school so that she could teach him what she had learned in math class.

“Because I had that early exposure, when I got to school and we finally started learning negative numbers, I excelled,” he said.

Smiley’s interest in math continued through school and college. Now he is a PhD candidate in the Department of Biostatistics at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, slated to graduate this year. Beyond his own research in biostatistics, he is also dedicated to inspiring the next generation of minority students to enter the field.

Building community, launching careers

A native of Chicago, Smiley attended Atlanta’s Morehouse College, a historically Black college. As a Dr. John H. Hopps Jr. Scholar, he participated in math summer programs to gain experience in graduate-level coursework and hands-on research, and received mentorship when he applied for doctoral programs. While he knew that he was interested in statistics, it was his adviser who introduced him to the possibility of studying biostatistics and helped him to identify the doctoral degree program at Harvard Chan School.

Smiley studied at the School from 2014 to 2017, completing a master’s degree in biostatistics before taking a break to gain work experience. During a two-year stint as a statistical analyst at Northwestern University, working with biostatistician Denise Scholtens, Smiley conducted research on hyperglycemia’s effects on pregnancy outcomes and learned about the field of network science—which became the focus of his PhD dissertation when he returned to Harvard Chan School in 2019.

When Smiley first arrived in Boston to begin his studies, he found himself looking for a welcoming and supportive community like the one that he had at Morehouse.

“I’d be the only Black person on the bus. I’d be the only Black person on the train,” he said.

Smiley started participating in a mentorship program through the city of Boston, where he met Black high school students who were also interested in math. He wondered if he could bring them to the School to introduce them to the field of biostatistics—how math can be applied to advancing public health.

A fellow PhD student, Alex Ocampo, convinced Smiley to bring the idea to Marcello Pagano, professor of statistical computing, whose probability class both had taken.

“I was scared,” Smiley said. “The thing I was most afraid of was being told no.”

Smiley and Ocampo’s meeting with Pagano was brief, lasting only five minutes. But the next thing they knew, they were on the path to launching StatStart, a biostatistics summer program for minority high school students.

Pagano helped Smiley think through the logistics of developing the on-campus experience. The program received support from the School, so there was funding to provide computers and lunches. When other graduate students in the department found out about StatStart, they jumped on board to help create class materials and teach. Since its launch in 2014, dozens of high schoolers have participated in the four-week program, which meets four times a week.

StatStart offers high school students coursework on the fundamentals of biostatistics and computer programming as well as an introduction to the field of public health through presentations from researchers. “We focus on making sure that they have a good time and enjoy learning statistics,” Smiley said. “They’ve got a whole life ahead of them to learn, as long as they’re interested.”

But the program also supports the students well beyond that—Smiley is committed to setting the students up for success with college, scholarships, and jobs. “We haven’t missed a deadline on a letter of recommendation,” he said. “That’s what’s most important to me.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, StatStart became a virtual program. “It allowed for us to recruit from all over the nation, and that gave us a really diverse pool of applicants,” Smiley said. The students rose to the occasion, working together virtually to solve the math, statistics, and programming problems presented in the course.

“Octavious and Alex wanted to bring students together here at the school for a few weeks so they could bond together as they explored the world of numbers and public health. The two wanted to focus on mostly minority high school students skilled with numbers, who did not realize that there is a very exciting living to be made using their skills to harness numbers in the service of public health,” said Pagano. “Turns out that this program not only benefited the high schoolers, but also the graduate students who taught in the program [by giving them teaching experience].”

The journey into biostatistics

Smiley was influenced to co-create StatStart in part due to the summer math programs that he himself attended in the past. In particular, he credits two programs as being the “cornerstones of my undergrad experience.”

One program, held at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, was Smiley’s first exposure to graduate-level math. “I stumbled through the entire program, but when I returned to Morehouse, I had a leg up on all the competition when it got to our proof-based math class,” he said. “I had a fun semester, because I was finished with my homework faster.”

He added, “That experience really instilled in me that a lot of times, it’s not about how smart you are, how intelligent you are—it’s about your exposure.”

Next came a program at Arizona State University that offered students the opportunity to complete a hands-on research project, focusing on the intersection of math and the social and life sciences. “I was a more mature mathematical student at this point. It was still outrageously hard, but this was my first full-blown experience into a research project,” Smiley said. For his project, he used mathematical models to study the movement of invasive ants, with the goal of informing control strategies.

That research experience “made it possible for me to go into a mathematical science PhD,” he said.

Smiley remembers wanting to pursue a PhD ever since he was a child. “I was interested in the PhD before I even knew what it was. It was just the highest level of education, and my mom was always big on education,” he said. “This is me trying to make her proud.”

For his doctoral research, Smiley is working with his adviser JP Onnela, associate professor of biostatistics. He simulates data from people who have HIV, specifically the at-risk group of men who have sex with men. Each data point represents a connection between two men who have a sexual relationship, where HIV transmission could potentially occur. All the different data points in the study population come together to form what is known as a contact network.

Smiley’s analysis has found that studying the network at multiple time points—instead of just one—improves the prediction of how individuals form connections. His results could inform the design of future longitudinal network studies of sexually transmitted diseases, which could in turn lead to better public health interventions to reduce the incidence of these diseases.

In the future, Smiley is open to pursuing different career paths in statistics research. “At some point, I’d like to focus purely on teaching and mentorship in an academic setting,” he said. “I definitely want to be in a position where I can help those coming after me.”

Jay Lau (formerly Jessica)

Photo: Kent Dayton