December 19, 2008

It’s all in the numbers for Biostatistics Department

Featured Image

It’s all in the numbers for Biostatistics Department

Frank Harrell, Ph.D., right, talks with Dan Roden, M.D., Ph.D., at the department’s recent anniversary celebration.  (photo by Susan Urmy)

Frank Harrell, Ph.D., right, talks with Dan Roden, M.D., Ph.D., at the department’s recent anniversary celebration. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Math is the language of science, and underpinning Vanderbilt Medical Center's research enterprise is a relative of applied math and biology called biostatistics.

Biostatisticians are in short supply, and to lure them universities first have to compete with the pharmaceutical industry and other institutions. In spite of these tough recruitment conditions, Vanderbilt has in the past five years managed to quadruple its complement of full-time biostatisticians: from 12 in 2003 to 50 today.

And the Medical Center will be recruiting more biostatisticians in the coming years, according to Frank Harrell, Ph.D., professor and founding chair of the Department of Biostatistics.

“We may be the academic department that interacts most with other departments,” he said. Through long-term collaboration aimed at optimal understanding of variability and evidence, Vanderbilt's biostatisticians help other scientists strengthen experimental designs and achieve more meaningful research results. The department is currently involved in some 130 sponsored research projects. Harrell said department members pride themselves on increasing the probability that a research grant proposal will be funded.

“People who become biostatisticians enjoy collaboration and helping others. Our role fits the team science concept, which is becoming more and more the norm. We believe completely in one of the sayings of the famous statistician John Tukey: 'The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone's backyard,'” Harrell said.

Formerly a thriving division of the Department of Preventive Medicine, the Department of Biostatistics includes 27 faculty and 23 masters-level staff biostatisticians. Many medical schools still don't have freestanding departments of biostatistics, Harrell said, and the ones that do have a built-in recruiting edge. The department recently celebrated its fifth anniversary with a party on a terrace of Medical Center North.

The department is unique among biostatistics faculties, Harrell said, in that a large number of other departments and divisions provide it direct financial support through a cost-sharing plan.

“These divisions and departments always have Ph.D. and M.S. biostatistician collaborators at the ready. The beauty of this arrangement is that it gives us opportunity to help other scientists develop ideas and grant proposals, support their fellows' and residents' research, their journal clubs and a variety of other activities,” Harrell said.

Collaborative arrangements also include special biostatistics cores within the Vanderbilt Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.

While biostatisticians in general continue to focus on clinical and translational research, Harrell sees opportunities to work more closely with basic scientists.

“We would like to be involved with more basic research. By helping examine ways of measuring biological response, biostatisticians can often suggest changes to experimental designs and measurement techniques that may allow a more meaningful result, a smaller sample size, or the testing of multiple hypotheses in a single experiment.”

Several faculty teach courses in the School of Medicine and the graduate school, and the department is preparing to launch its own doctoral and masters programs.

Anyone with a question about scientific measurement, experimental design, data analysis or presentation of results can drop by the department's biostatistics clinics, held weekdays at noon. A statistical computing clinic is held each Thursday. For more information, go to