In contrast to most people, Ji-Hyun Lee, DrPH, doesn’t find statistics difficult or boring. For her, statistics is fulfilling because it’s how she helps people fight cancer. “People think biostatistics is purely numbers,” Lee says, “but my work helps to improve patients’ care.” She recalls a visit to a hospital patient as a young statistician working for a cystic fibrosis research team. “A very senior medical doctor introduced me to the cystic fibrosis patient who was lying down in bed at the time. He told me that my research was helping these patients.”
Statistics is its own scientific area of research and training. It is the science of collecting, summarizing, analyzing and interpreting data to make decisions. Statisticians help teams of scientists through the entire scientific process; biostatistics applies to health science areas, like cancer. Teams of scientists use the scientific process to improve cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment.
The scientific process begins with the initial idea to test. At this beginning stage of the work, a statistician’s help can be invaluable. “Biostatisticians help scientists to clearly express what they want to learn and how they will measure it through the correct statistical prism,” Lee says. “We are collaborators working together to draw the best scientific conclusion.” Then, based on these goals, biostatisticians help to design the study: how many people are needed, how to decide who will receive which treatment, how to gather the measurements. After the study finishes, biostatisticians analyze the measurements to help the scientists draw their conclusions.
In clinical research, where scientists have limited access to patients and treatments, biostatisticians help clinical researchers to make the best of what they have. “No one knows which treatment is better,” says Lee, “so we provide the most efficient and effective number of people needed [to test the treatments].” Some studies may require 100 people while other studies may require only 30; that’s why the researcher and the statistician must work together at the study planning stage.
Biostatisticians also help scientists by asking about how their data will be measured. For things like drug levels in blood, the measurements can be straightforward. But for research based on asking people questions, the questions themselves need to be vetted. “We need to ask whether the question is a scientifically proven tool,” says Lee.
With more focus on clinical trials, biostatisticians — and statisticians in all scientific fields — are enjoying more opportunities. Lee wants more girls to get interested in this growing field, a field they haven’t been traditionally drawn to. She has spoken to student groups about careers in statistics and was recently elected President of the Caucus for Women in Statistics, a group dedicated to helping women enter and excel in the statistics field. “People think that statistics is mostly numbers, difficult and boring,” Lee says. “But I have always believed that my work is directly and indirectly associated with the improvement of patients’ care.”
Ji-Hyun Lee, DrPH, is a Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Preventive Medicine, at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. She is Director of the Biostatistics Shared Resource and a full member of the Cancer Control Research Group at the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center. She holds a doctorate of Public Health in Biostatistics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Lee has extensive experience in overseeing biostatisticians and collaborating on numerous scientific studies. Her research interests include clinical trials; group randomized trials based on communities; methods for the analysis of observational data and repeated measurements; statistical methods in epidemiology; and best statistical practices.
The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center is the Official Cancer Center of New Mexico and the only National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center in a 400-mile radius. One of the premier cancer centers nationwide, the UNM CCC has 128 board-certified oncology physicians, forming New Mexico’s largest cancer care team. It treats about 60 percent of adults and virtually all the children in New Mexico diagnosed with cancer — more than 10,000 people— from every county in the state in more than 135,000 clinic visits each year. Through its partnership with the New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance, an “exemplary national model for cancer health care delivery,” the UNM CCC offers access to more than 160 clinical trials to New Mexicans in every part of the state. Annual research funding of more than $72 million supports the UNM CCC’s 132 cancer scientists. Working with partners at Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute, and New Mexico State University, they have developed new diagnostics and drugs for leukemia, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, liver and pancreatic cancer, brain cancer, and melanoma; garnered 33 new patents and 117 patents pending; and launched 13 new biotechnology companies since 2010. Learn more at cancer.unm.edu.
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