Dr. Suzanne Dahlberg Talks Biostatistics: How to Ensure Strong Science

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Juhi Kunde, MA

We’ve all read about clinical trials that have been declared successful or unsuccessful. Have you ever wondered who helps make that determination?

I recently spoke with biostatistician Suzanne Dahlberg, PhD, Senior Research Scientist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and a member of our Scientific Advisory Board. Biostatisticians are key contributors to scientific progress; through the rigorous use of statistics, they ensure that research studies are set up, conducted, and interpreted accurately. Dr. Dahlberg discussed her approach to using biostatistics in lung cancer research, her thoughts on being female in her field, and choosing a career in math. 

LUNGevity Foundation: What does an average day look like for you?

Suzanne Dahlberg: Each day is different. I don’t spend every day computer programming. I also have a lot of teleconferences and face-to-face meetings with researchers. And I attend a lot of scientific and medical conferences. Basically, I spend my time helping researchers and medical oncologists do lung cancer research that is statistically sound by using mathematics to verify that results are meaningful.

LF: How can biostatistics help us reach our goal of a world where no one dies of lung cancer?

SD: We think of all experiments as statistical experiments. So, it doesn’t matter if you are growing cells on petri dishes or studying tissue samples or running a trial, you can still use statistics to ensure that there is a high probability of your results being real. In fact, biostatisticians also help researchers design and monitor their experiments. We help scientists understand and interpret their results so that the claims that they make based on their research are as accurate as possible.

 LF: How do researchers use statistics during clinical trials?

SD:  Well, we start with the design of the trial. We advise other researchers on many clinical trial factors, such as the number of patients to enroll and the kinds of data to collect, and we discuss how to analyze the data. Once the trial is underway, we monitor the patients and the efficacy and safety of the trial. For example, if the trial is going so well (or so poorly) that we can calculate a conclusive result sooner than we anticipated, we advise on whether or not to continue the trial. Of course, we are also involved in analyzing the data and reporting the results at the end of the trial.

LF: How does being female impact your role as a biostatistician?

SD: Honestly, I don’t really think about gender issues much. I have more frequent thoughts about my age and my Boston accent than I do about being female. Most of the statisticians in my department are female, and over the years we have become great friends. I work with both male and female medical oncologists, and they are all great people. On the rare occasion that something does come up—age, gender, or whatever (it’s hard to know what exactly the problem is)—and someone doesn’t want to work with me, I just don’t take it personally.

LF: What is your advice for the next generation of biostatisticians?

SD: If you like math, stick with it. It’s a leap of faith, but it’s worth it. When I started college I was pre-med, but I quickly realized that I wanted to focus on math instead. The first thing parents ask is, “What are you going to do with a math degree?”  But it is not a dead-end road. It may require more advanced training such as graduate school, but there are lots of opportunities. People are really starting to value biostatistics. I hope more young adults take this path and develop careers in growing fields like biostatistics and lung cancer research.

Juhi Kunde, MA, is a science writer for LUNGevity. Juhi Kunde

Clinical trials/research

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