Welcome to BiosBeat a collection of the latest department news, special features, dates to save, and much more for our students. So, read on, enjoy, and be sure to regularly check back for updates!


HIGHLIGHTS OF THIS ISSUE:

  • Gillings is more Global now
  • Sen Distinguished Visiting Professor from the Middle East
  • Our Student is a Philips Ambassador or K Pop Fan?
  • Collaboration in Chapel Hill – Neurological Study Connecting Bios & Radiology Departments
  • Why do communities of color suffer disproportionately? Covid19 Research
  • Tips on Success @ Carolina from an Alum
  • And more…

CHAIR’S CORNER

Dr. Lisa LaVange

Dr. Lisa LaVange

Welcome back to campus! The fall semester is off and running, and it is wonderful to see so many faculty, staff, and students in person again. Everyone’s health and safety is at the top of our minds, and to this end, Biostatistics is committed to compliance with the University’s Covid-19 community standards (Community Standards | Carolina Together | UNC-Chapel Hill: Carolina Together). The Gillings School, as the #1 public health school in a public university, is leading the way with information about the pandemic and resources we can tap to meet the challenges it poses, drawing upon the considerable expertise available among Gillings faculty and the important research they conduct to address the pandemic from so many different dimensions. The School issues Covid-19 FAQs each Friday highlighting recent updates to campus standards. Regularly scheduled Covid Conversations also take place, including the August 12 presentation by Dr. David Weber from UNC School of Medicine and Gillings Department of Epidemiology about the Delta variant, risks of infection, and mitigation measures in our campus context (https://sph.unc.edu/resource-pages/pandemic-planning/). His #1 take-home message, “Masks work!”

We welcomed over 70 new Biostatistics students at orientation in August. Thanks to all the faculty members and BSA officers who gave presentations at this event. We have a record number of new BSPH students this year (over 40!) in addition to over 30 new MS and PhD students. Most of our Biostatistics classes are able to meet in person this fall, although record enrollment numbers across campus made classroom assignments a challenge. Thanks to everyone for bearing with us, as classroom assignments and mode of instruction are worked out. Our commitment remains to provide the best educational experience possible for all students.

For the second year in a row, the Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM) were held virtually August 8 – 12, 2021. That did not, however, stop us from hosting our annual UNC JSM reception. The virtual reception for UNC Biostatistics and STOR alumni, faculty, and current students was a big success! We had several decades of graduating classes represented, and the stories shared were so enjoyable. Fingers crossed we’ll meet in person at JSM 2022 in Washington, DC.

This academic year, we hope to launch several exciting initiatives in communications, inclusive excellence, and other areas identified for strategic growth and improvement in Biostatistics. More details will be forthcoming. And if you have not already, check out the revised Academic Information Manual (AIM) reflecting updates to our academic programs as well as a new look for the cover (2021-2022-AIM.pdf (unc.edu).

Enjoy the fall weather (when it finally arrives!), and if you are on campus, please stop by the Biostatistics main office to say hello.

Lisa


AROUND CAMPUS

PROFESSOR MALIK YOUSEF VISITING FROM ISRAEL

Dr. Malik Yousef

This fall semester, Gillings welcomes Malik Yousef, PhD, a visiting scholar from Zefat Academic College in Israel into the community. Professor Yousef will be a Pranab K. Sen Distinguished Visiting Professor, which will allow him to complete research while at UNC.

Yousef has published more than sixty peer-reviewed articles and proceedings, presented more than two dozen talks, reviewed articles in fifteen scientific journals, served on seven editorial boards, and participated in many academic programs and meetings. He also holds a PhD in Mathematics and Computer Sciences from the University of Haifa and is currently an Associate Professor at Zefat Academic College in Safed, Israel. His areas of specialization include Bioinformatics, Machine Learning, Text Mining, Data Science, Big Data, and Deep learning.


IMPACTFUL RESEARCH

NEUROLOGICAL RESEARCH – BIOS AND SOM CAMPUS COLLABORATION

Identifying genetic variants influencing human brain white matter microstructure.

New research being done at UNC is studying the role that white matter in brain structure plays in helping the body process information. White matter connects regions that send a receive signals, affecting the ability to focus and learn, solve problems, and stay balanced when walking. The research is now suggesting that some diseases that affect white matter may be associated with structural and genetic abnormalities in the brain.

The co-authors behind this project are doctoral researcher Bingxin Zhao, PhD, in the Department of Biostatistics and Tengfei Li, PhD, in the department of radiology. Additional researchers from the Department of Biostatistics included doctoral students Yue Yang, Xifeng Wang, Tianyou Luo, and Ziliang Zhu, along with Professors Yun Li, PhD, and Hongtu Zhu, Ph.D. Professor Zhu serves as the corresponding author on the study. The study was published in Science, and led by the Biostatistics and Imaging Genomics Analysis Lab’s Statistics and Signal group (BIG-S^2). BIG-S^2 is a collaboration between the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and the UNC School of Medicine.

Read more here.

BIOS DEPARTMENT CONTRIBUTES TO COVID-19 RESEARCH

An illustration from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals the basic form of the virus blamed for the outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China.

CDC Covid Illustration

Five members of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health have published a new study in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases that demonstrates how quickly COVID-19 can spread through a household. Our Department of Biostatistics team included Professor Feng-Chang Lin, PhD, Gillings doctoral student Katie Mollan, MS, and our recent graduate Haoming Zhang, MS. This study provides insight into how and why communities of color have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic.

Lin says these findings all come back to one key message — vaccinations. The more people in a household who are vaccinated, the less likely the chance that secondary COVID infections will occur. Even if one person is vaccinated, it helps, especially if the vaccinated person happens to be the first infection in a household. A person who has been vaccinated will most likely have a lower viral load, which will make it harder for the virus to infect other household members.

Read more here.

 


BEYOND CHAPEL HILL

SUMMER FUN – GILLINGS BIOS STUDENT GOES GLOBAL AS PHILIPS AMBASSADOR

Taking a break over the summer is usually a quick trip to the beach or something similar. Skyler Noble wanted more adventure.  The Chapel Hill, NC, native is a class of 2023 student in the Biostatistics Department, who applied and was selected as a 2021 Philips Ambassador, an undergraduate study program for studying in Asia. Founded in 2007 by an alumnus, the program has supported 350 students studying, interning, and researching abroad, scholarships combine a financial award, an academic course, and a charge to students to share their unique study abroad in Asia experience, with young people in their hometowns and with the Carolina community.

Noble visiting a local library.

Noble attended the YISS (Yonsei International Summer School at Yonsei University) program, located in Sinchon, Seoul. When asked about why she chose this particular study abroad program, she said, “I wanted to get as far out of my comfort zone as possible, and the Phillips Ambassadors program seemed like the perfect program for me.” While she originally decided on a research internship program in Singapore, not long after receiving the news that she had been chosen for the award, she found out that the Singapore program had been canceled due to COVID and had to quickly reset. Determined to get herself abroad, she reapplied to the YISS.

The course she chose was called Contemporary Korean Culture and the Korean Wave. The class met virtually over Zoom Monday through Thursday. Noble says “I am beyond glad that I chose that course. My professor, Dr. Jeong Seung-Hoon, is passionate about all things pop-culture and leads vibrant discussions and lectures on K-pop, the origin of Korean media and film, the historical influences on modern music and more. More than anything, this program has shown me just how much I don’t know. I’m constantly uncovering massive gaps in my understanding of history and the world, and I feel so lucky to have been studying in a space that is helping me in filling those gaps.”

Noble also mentioned that COVID affected nearly every aspect of her study abroad experience. South Korea has very strict regulations for visitors coming into the country. To enter Seoul, she needed to gather extensive paperwork and documents including a COVID test within 72 hours of her arrival in South Korea. Once she arrived, she had to go to a government-assigned hotel to quarantine for two weeks.

Taking an outdoor study break.

When she was out of quarantine, she realized that the day-to-day life for citizens had changed too. In recent months, Seoul entered a level four lockdown due to a rise in cases. Masks were worn constantly and enforced strictly, and you have to sign in to every restaurant or shop you enter either with an ID QR code or on a sign-in sheet for contact tracing. Noble says that “It’s fascinating to see how organized and controlled it was there in regard to COVID, especially in comparison to America where even wearing masks caused a mass uproar.”

The most exciting experience for Noble is seeing how much she has grown from this experience. She says “I’ve traveled before, but this has been a whole new experience. I stick out like a sore thumb in Korea. I don’t speak the language, and my clothes are different but I’m slowly picking up on all the small cultural norms and differences that are second nature to locals.” With every place she goes, she says she believes she is broadening her perspective bit by bit, saying “This was one of the best educational decisions I’ve made. I love the country and eagerly soaked up every second while there.”


SPOTLIGHT ON FACULTY

Professor Rashid hiking with his family.

NAIM RASHID

Position: Assistant Associate Professor
Time at The Gillings School:  6 years

What I do (and why I love it):  My work largely revolves around methodological and applied problems in cancer research. Through my role at Lineberger, I collaborate with physicians and researchers on questions concerning genomics and clinical studies. I also help design cancer clinical trials at UNC and elsewhere, serving as trial statistician on a number of active protocols.

These interactions help inform and motivate my methodological work in the areas of genomics, precision medicine, and machine learning, where some of the statistical methods I have developed have had direct applications to the clinic. What I love most about performing research that spans both the applied and methodological domains is seeing how each informs and supports the other, and how both can benefit cancer patients, the understanding of the disease itself, and provide new tools for the broader statistical community to use. I also teach BIOS 735 each spring, a doctoral-level course covering topics spanning several areas of modern statistical computing. It has been very rewarding to work with students who are just embarking on the research stage of their doctoral careers and teaching them practical tools that they can use for their dissertation work.

First job or internship I had was:  A summer internship at the National Cancer Institute in high school. I learned a lot about cancer and common laboratory assays, which ultimately sparked my interest in cancer research and helped lead me to my current career path. My first job was as a cashier at Kohl’s around the same time. I quickly learned that a future in retail was not in the works.

___

Gillings announced recently that Professor Naim Rashid was being promoted to associate professor.  Congratulations on your well-deserved advancement!


GET TO KNOW BIOS

THE CSCC CELEBRATES 50 YEARS

Snapshot from the past, former directors (l-r) Drs. Lisa LaVange, Lloyd Chambless, Ed Davis, Dale Williams and Jim Grizzle at the 40th anniversary.

The Collaborative Studies Coordinating Center passed its half-century mark in 2021.

Founding Chair of our department, Bernard Greenberg, Phd was responsible for UNC Biostatistics being asked to bid on a new program in 1971. Professors Jim Grizzle and Dale Williams applied to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s Lipid Research Clinics Program for a contract to serve as the program’s central patient registry and coordinating center.

The award, roughly $300,000 (over 2 million today) for the first year, was enough to build the foundation for what would become one of the world’s most prestigious centers of its kind, the UNC Collaborative Studies Coordinating Center (CSCC).

Over the years, this vital branch of the Biostatistics Department has brought over 50 studies, hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, and international renown as a leader in the field. Today, the Center is bigger than ever before. We have over 90 faculty and staff now spread over two floors of our Carolina Square office (moved 2017).

2020/2021 held challenges for all of us. At the beginning of the pandemic, we deftly pivoted to a remote working environment with no disruption to our studies. With decades of experience collaborating with distant partners and institutions, we were certainly well prepared to practice it on ourselves.

There were a few leadership changes at the center this year. Professor and now Chair of the department,  Lisa LaVange, who returned to direct the CSCC in 2017, was named chair of the Department of Biostatistics in February. Deputy Director Professor David Couper has stepped into the Director role temporarily, while a national search is underway. Earlier in the year, Professors Daniela Sotres-Alvarez along with Matt Psioda assumed co-Associate Director roles and now assist in leading the center.

In the face of the COVID-19 global health crisis, the CSCC’s scope and goals have never been more important. Our mission bears a nice repeat here:

The mission of the CSCC is to improve public health by coordinating important health research, developing innovative research methodology, and providing practical training in the application of research methods.

An in-person anniversary event is anticipated once we can assemble safely. We are very eager to reunite colleagues past and present, throughout the Gillings School of Global Public Health family and beyond, to celebrate the CSCC’s legacy and future!


BIOSTATISTICS STUDENT ASSOCIATION (BSA)

NEW OFFICERS & ROLES PROVIDE MORE INPUT

Our Biostatistics Student Association (BSA) is ramped up and ready to go for a fall semester back in person! Every BSA office is filled for the 2021-22 academic year, and the current officers have many great ideas to share with the biostatistics community.

Tarek Zikry and Ann Marie Weideman (3rd and 4th year PhD students) serve as the current BSA Co-Presidents. They acknowledge that, “Since the last time we were on campus, there have been changes in the department to include new staff, faculty, and positions. Furthermore, the 2020 admitted students have yet to step foot on campus for class or meet their cohort and professors face-to-face. We will facilitate this transition back to Gillings along with all the adjustments that come with these changes. With several new BSA positions, we hope to continue the open communication fostered virtually and represent, convey, and act on student concerns and needs. Lastly, we want to thank outgoing BSA president John Sperger and all 2019-20 BSA officers for their work during a particularly challenging period.”

Taylor Krajewski (4th year PhD student) and Anna Batorsky (4th year DrPH student) will serve in a new BSA role this year as Liaisons to the Department Chairs. They explain that, “This position was developed to provide an avenue for Bios students to voice their thoughts and concerns, while maintaining a professional relationship and collaborative dialogue with faculty. We plan to gather student concerns, questions, and suggestions monthly through email and an anonymous online form. We will keep a running list of concerns, discuss a handful of these concerns monthly with the chairs, and relay feedback and relevant information to students via email and BSA announcements.”

The BSA encourages those who would like to participate in the BSA mission to reach out to any of the current officers.

Each BiosBeat includes a BSA feature.


DEPARTMENT DASHBOARD

PROFESSOR PSIODA TO COLLABORATE WITH WAKE FOREST SCHOOL OF MEDICINE

Matthew Psioda

Dr. Matthew Psioda

Congratulations to Gillings Professor Wayne Rosamond, PhD, and Assistant Professor Sara Jones Berkeley, PhD, of the Department of Epidemiology on their recent award. This study is an extension of a previous collaboration of research between UNC and Wake Forest on post-acute stroke care, the COMprehensive Post-Acute Stroke Services Study (COMPASS). The team at the Gillings School has received $8.2 million of the award to lead the data coordinating center, with Wake Forest School of Medicine serving as the clinical center.

Assistant Professor Matthew Psioda is the Biostatistics Department lead involved in the research project. Psioda is a senior biostatistician and director of innovative trials at the Collaborative Studies Coordinating Center within the Department of Biostatistics.

Read more here.


AWARDS/HONORS/FACULTY/CAMPUS NEWS

BIOS PROFESSOR IS LEAD RESEARCHER ON NIH GRANT

Yun Li

Dr. Yun Li

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has granted Biostatistics Professor Yun Li, PhD, more than $4.9 million over five years to lead a project that will study polygenetic risk scores. The research, titled “Polygenic risk scores and health disparities: the role of blood cells immune response and evolutionary adaptation,” will look to improve the way that polygenic risk scores can be used to predict disease in diverse populations.

The National Institutes of Health logo

Polygenetic risk scores (PRS) are a genetic estimate that are used to estimate an individual’s risk for specific diseases based on their genetic make-up. The polygenic risk scores are calculated by medical professionals to compare the genomic data of people who have a disease and those who do not have it.

Current research is showing that the beginning stages of calculating polygenic risk scores were developed by studying mostly European ancestry data, which are not applicable in most cases when used in diverse communities. The grant awardees will pool genomic information from preexisting datasets, as well as studying new datasets from people with non-European ancestries, to develop new methods and assess the PRS for specific diseases. From this, researchers will aim to identify the best methods for predicting accurate scores for diseases in diverse populations.

In the past, this type of research has been used to develop the ability to calculate PRS for many conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, and coronary heart failure, and identify high-risk individuals from these numbers. This research has allowed analysts to use PRS combined with a person’s lifestyle along with environmental factors to name specific medical management practices that are tailored for specific people.

The newly awarded study sites will each take a unique approach to improving polygenic risk score development.

Read more here.

SOTRES-ALVAREZ PRESENTS AT NATIONAL CONFERENCE

Dr. Sotres-Alvarez

On May 6th, 2021, Daniela Sotres-Alvarez, Dr.PH, presented at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. She was one of the four speakers of “Webinar 1: Methods for Dietary Assessments during Pregnancy,” as well as being in the discussion panel for Webinar 4: “Innovations and Special Considerations in Assessing Dietary Intake During Pregnancy and Ages 2-11 Years.” She was also joined on the panel by Gillings alumni and former UNC professor Diane Catellier.

Professor Sotres-Alvarez is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biostatistics with 14 years of experience as a biostatistician in nutrition research. She has collaborated in several large epidemiologic studies and has specific expertise in measurement error in dietary intake and physical activity, dietary patterns, latent variable models, longitudinal data analysis, and complex survey analysis. Sotres-Alvarez historically has multiple collaborations, including research in obesity, diabetes, and cardiometabolic health. Currently, she has co-authored over 130 scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals, including over 80 with a direct focus on diet.

The workshop delved into issues related to methods used to examine total usual nutrient and dietary supplement intakes, best practices in dietary assessment applications used to estimate total intakes of food and supplements in population groups, and data gaps in dietary assessment methodologies, including properties and measurement error associated with dietary supplement intake, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine website.

The webinars are the first in a series of virtual workshops that will examine the evidence on methodological approaches to conducting intake assessment of food and dietary supplements in pregnant women and children ages 2 to 11 years old.

Read more here.


WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

RECENT ALUM: SANUSI AT HARVARD RESEARCHING AIDS

A new feature of BiosBeat is checking in with recent alumni. Each of our bios alumni are out doing amazing things, and today we are checking in on one recent graduate, Busola Sanusi, PhD, Biostatistics, 2021, to see what she is doing now.

Photo of Sanusi’s wedding with bios friends.

Hailing from Lagos, Nigeria, Busola Sanusi has now taken residence in Boston, MA. After graduating with a PhD in Biostatistics from UNC this past spring, Sanusi has taken a research position at the Harvard School of Public Health Center for Biostatistics in AIDS Research (CBAR).

The Center for Biostatistics in AIDS Research was founded within the Harvard Biostatistics Department in 1995. CBAR’s main mission is to foster statistical science in clinical trials and other research studies in infectious diseases, but particularly HIV. This mission is pursued by promoting innovative strategies for the design, data monitoring, analyses, and reporting of the research studies. They also provide education and training that is relevant to the statistical aspects of infectious disease research.

While at Gillings, she had the opportunity to work under Professor Jennifer Smith as a research assistant in the area of HIV/AIDS, HPV, and Cervical Cancer. Sanusi also developed statistical methodology in marked survival analysis, which she says, “this greatly prepared me for my current job at CBAR.” In addition to aiding in research, she says that the classes she took in the Biostatistics Department and the summer internship opportunities at two pharmaceutical companies (Merck & Co. and Takeda Pharmaceutical Companies) “provided me with the core background needed to successfully work with health scientists and professionals to solve public health problems.”

Sanusi wanted to specifically call out her dissertation advisors, Professors Jianwen Cai and Michael Hudgens, who is the director of CFAR, “The Bios department at Gillings provides more than academic exposure. You basically have a family that cares for the well-being and success of everyone. I strongly believe that this is what makes Gillings and the Bios department in particular prestigious.”

She chose the UNC Biostatistics department for her doctoral studies because it is known for its innovative research and commitment to solving some of the most pressing global health issues. She says, “in collaboration with other research institutes such as UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the UNC Center for AIDS Research (CFAR), the Biostatistics department develops new statistical methodologies for health applications. The Biostatistics department has a pool of distinct alumni, a great student body, and professors that are excellent in teaching and research.”

Her tips for student success are:

  • Time management is key. It is easy to channel your attention to a particular agenda while other equally important tasks get neglected. However, if you set realistic daily goals, your overall to-do list will be less overwhelming.
  • Take time to recharge if you need to. Sometimes, a short break may be all you need to regain your mental stability.
  • Collaborate with your colleagues (including those in other cohorts). You will be amazed at how easier life could be if you communicate your concerns with other students. In addition, you will build friendships that will last beyond UNC.
  • Participate in extracurricular activities that interest you e.g. yoga, running, etc. This will help to refresh your mind and improve your level of clarity and concentration when you return to work.

Sanusi has been published in several public health journals like the American Journal for Obstetrics and Gynecology and has given presentations about her research at the International Papillomavirus Conference, the ASA Conference, the European Research Organization Conference on Genital Infection and Neoplasia, and the UNC Global Oncology Conference. On top of that, she received the Biopharmaceutical Section Scholarship Award from the American Statistical Association (ASA) and is a three-year recipient of a Faculty for the Future Fellowship from the Schlumberger Foundation, which recognizes outstanding female students from developing countries who are enrolled in a doctoral program.

Watch for more recent alum profiles in upcoming issues of BiosBeat, a new regular component.


IMPORTANT STUDENT DATE REMINDERS

  • October 12 – University Day
  • October 21 and 22 – Fall Recess
  • More important dates can be found here.

If you have news or a story idea you feel would fit BiosBeat, please submit them to Jeff Oberhaus / Bios Communications.

PLEASE NOTE: Due to COVID-19 and related events, BiosRhythms print magazine has been held up. Notice of Issue 31 going to press and being mailed will be posted here.