Biostatistics: Why Does It Even Matter?
I asked myself the same question before I enrolled for this class. I’m a senior biochemistry major, so that of course means I have no idea what course my life will be taking in the next year, let alone what is the correct career path for me. I have some inkling of what I’d like to pursue: screening for genetic diseases, researching different pharmacological methods to inhibit the spread of cancer, or perhaps even going into biological anthropology and testing the genetic matter of ancient homo sapiens. Regardless of where or in what field I wish to be employed, I had figured that biostatistics would be virtually useless to me. However, upon further inspection I determined that not only is biostatistics relevant in nearly all of the career paths which interest me, it is vital.
Although I do not believe medical school is in the books for me personally, medical students need to be able to understand the core principles of biostatistics and be able to apply them in the field. This is an essential skill for all prospective physicians to master in order to be knowledgeable about, for example, patients’ chances of developing cancer at a young age, or which populations of the world are at the most risk for contracting communicable diseases. An article describing training methods for clinical oncological researchers describes this very need. The article stated that the trainees in this particular field had received a rudimentary education in the subject, but their post-graduate work required them to have a better grasp on biostatical skills and research methodology. Reading this made me realize that conducting research in oncological pharmaceuticals or genetic screening will require me to either directly perform the biostatistics myself, or to collaborate with a biostatistician. I would need to use biostatistics most likely in order to develop some kind of control or starting place in order to begin my research. For example, if I were researching a drug which remedied a mutation in a certain type of cancer patient, I would want to pursue research in a drug that worked on the most patients, not a drug that could only cure a rare mutation which affected a very small subset of this certain cancer’s victims. Being able to derive the probability that most people with this cancer have the same cancerous mutation would not only save time for myself, but also save money for my employer.
Another reason the use of biostatistics in any of my future careers would be very important is the fact that I will need to demonstrate that my research methods are scientifically valid. The FDA will tend to employ data monitoring committees, or DMCs, when beginning clinical trials for pharmaceuticals, especially high profile cases where the biological risks are usually greater. DMCs are usually composed of biostaticians and clinicians who are hired separately from the trial sponsor in order to maintain objectivity. The role of these members is to ensure that the research behind the clinical trials has been conducted correctly, and perhaps most importantly, can be supported by mathematical data that the drug is worth investing millions of dollars in. If I was working as a researcher in one of these high profile cases, I would want to be able to prove to these DMCs that I had the properly supported data before embarking on the research. If not, I could lose grant money or maybe even my job.
Another possible career path I may choose to pursue is microbiology. As a potential microbiologist, I will need to be able to determine things like the rate at which a colony of bacteria grows, or the true count of a population. To do this, I would need the knowledge of determining things like standard deviation and the mean. Overall, it is clear that wherever I go, biostatistics will follow. Not only is it something that could give me an edge in the field, but it could save me from making costly experimental errors that could cost me my job.
- Turner, S., Sundaresan, P., Mann, K., Pryor, D., Gebski, V., and Shaw, T. (2016). Engaging Future Clinical Oncology Researchers: An Initiative to Integrate Teaching of Biostatistics and Research Methodology into Specialty Training. Clin. Oncol. 28, 306–316.
- Lin, J.Y., and Lu, Y. (2014). Establishing a data monitoring committee for clinical trials. Shanghai Arch. Psychiatry 26, 54–56.
- Paulson, Daryl S. Biostatistics and Microbiology: A Survival Manual. New York, NY: Springer, 2008. Springer Link. Springer New York. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.