Welcome to the BiosBeat communication tool for the Department of Biostatistics at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health! Here you will find a collection of the latest department news, special features, dates to save, and much more. So, read on, enjoy, and be sure to regularly check back for updates!

Highlights of this Issue:

-Overcoming Barriers and Distance to get to Gillings
-BSPH Summer Fun Stories Part 2
-Gate’s Foundation Awards UNC $2.9 Million for Research
-Gillings School Professors Try to Improve Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Decisions
-Department’s Research Published Recently in Biometrics
-Faculty Spotlight: Professor Monaco
-Department Leadership Transition
-Phi Beta Kappa Inductees
-Working to Improve Healthcare, Professor Preisser Receives New Funding

Important Dates



Jesus Vazquez Presents HCHS/SOL Poster at Bios 70th Conference

Jesus Vazquez grew up in a farmworker community in Chihuahua, Mexico and noticed some friends had dark-brown stains on their teeth and many of the farmers had sight issues. It was not until he attended the University of New Mexico did he learn that the dark-brown stains were a result of being exposed to contaminated drinking water, and the partial blindness the farmers were experiencing was a result of untreated conjunctivitis. Jesus knew that these health problems could be prevented and was motivated towards a career in Public Health.

A first-generation college student, Jesus’ mother became a seamstress after finishing high school and his father has worked in construction since aged 13. The guidance for graduate study from his parents was centered on finding the right “community.” He came to the conclusion that the Gillings School was the best place for him to pursue his PhD in Biostatistics, after seeing that not only the department houses the coordinating center for the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos (HCHS/SOL), the largest prospective cohort study of Latinos/Hispanics in the US, but that it also leads the field in cutting edge research in biostatistics across a variety of areas.

“This semester I’ve had the opportunity to work with Professors Sotres-Alvarez and Cai on identifying sources of measurement error in physical activity data estimates among HCHS/SOL participants. With this project I’ve gotten to learn about integrating complex survey designs in simple statistical areas such as a correlation coefficients and linear regression, and up to more complex models such as simultaneous equation models.”

Jesus is just beginning the PhD program in biostatistics at the Gillings School and foresees he will most likely develop new interests within the field as his program progresses. “Today, I can say that given the increasing life-expectancy of humans across the world, I’m interested in developing new statistical and data science methods to better identify individuals that will suffer from Alzheimer’s, Dementia and other mental degenerative diseases at an early stage.”

He sees that identifying individuals that will develop a mental degenerative disease at an early age can both be extremely beneficial to the patient and also help save millions of dollars every year. He sees his potential to not only conduct impactful research during his time in the program but also create venues to integrate undeserved communities in the process.

“One thing that I do want to complain about is the lack of New Mexico green chile peppers here, but aside from that I’m proud to be a Tar Heel. It might seem cliché but every other morning I wake up and I still can’t believe I go to graduate school here.”

Bios Undergraduate Awarded for Research Work on Preventing Bullying

Rhea Jain, Biostatistics Undergraduate Student

Gillings undergraduate student Rhea Jain (Biostatistics May 2020 BSPH), received a first-place award for her recent internship where she researched bullying among California youth with disabilities. Last summer, Rhea traveled across California with the non-profit organization California Foundation for Independent Living Centers (CFILC) to assess their youth-led anti-bullying campaign. The campaign is designed to connect, organize, and educate youth with disabilities. She created and disseminated a survey to youth with disabilities about the incidents and prevalence of bullying to better understand the efforts in place to prevent bullying.

Rhea highlighted how the project benefited from her training in biostatistics, saying that “having a biostatistics background here was more helpful than I had initially anticipated, as I was able to adequately design my survey without any leading questions and subsequently knew how to account for things like weighting and non-response bias when analyzing the results”.

Rhea’s mentor believes the project will inspire more research on bullying targeted towards students with disabilities. Rhea was a dedicated worker at her community site and worked on multiple assignments. As a result of her transformative learning experiences with CFILC, Rhea Jain has now become an advocate for the cause.

Read more on Rhea’s award here.


Gates Foundation Awards UNC $2.9 Million to Work on Ultra-Long-Acting Drug Delivery System

Biostatistics Professor Michael Hudgens investigation team including mentees, Gillings school doctoral students Katie Mollan and Bonnie Shook-Sa, along with principal investigator J. Victor Garcia, professor of medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill, were awarded $2.91 million recently from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create an ultra-long-acting implant for HIV drug delivery.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is an innovative way for those considered to be at high risk of contracting HIV to prevent HIV infection by taking antiretroviral medication daily. PrEP, when taken as prescribed, can have a large impact on decreasing the spread of HIV.

“We are excited that the Gates Foundation has seen the great potential of ultra-long-acting PrEP formulations and has awarded our multidisciplinary team of researchers funding to further test an ultra-long-acting drug delivery system,” said Garcia, who is a member of the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases and Director of the International Center for the Advancement of Translational Science.

The initial target for the treatment will be 180 days of sustained release, which places this drug delivery system among the first to aim towards such a long-lasting release.

Read the full story on the Gillings School website here.

Gillings School Professors Try to Improve Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Decisions

Naim Rashid, biostatistics assistant professor

Pancreatic Cancer is one of the deadliest cancer types, with just 9.3% of patients surviving five years after diagnosis. It is not usually diagnosed until later stages, when the cancer has already spread. In 2015, the UNC Lineburger Comprehensive Cancer Center discovered two major subtypes of pancreatic cancer based on their molecular and genetic features. Some researchers claim that there are actually three and four subtypes of pancreatic cancer, which is where uncertainty comes into play.

Lack of consensus made it more complicated to have optimal clinical decision-making. Researchers were led by biostatistics assistant professor Naim Rashid and Dr. Jen Jen Yeh, professor of surgery and pharmacology at UNC’s School of Medicine, both of whom are members of the Lineberger Center. They first analyzed data from two recent clinical trials for pancreatic cancer to better understand which tumor classifications aligned with treatment responses. They found the two-subtype classification best aligned with treatment outcome data from two clinical trials.

“We want to know which therapies are best for the patient so that we can maximize response and quality of life,” Yeh said. “For pancreatic cancer, where time is more limited, this becomes even more important. Our hope is that we can use this information to tailor treatments and potentially avoid giving therapies that may not work well for certain patients.”

Generated by machine-learning approaches, researchers generated this new subtype classification method which relies on comparisons of how specific pairs of genes are expressed. This method was found to be extremely accurate.

Rashid said: “We want to use the prediction model we developed in actual trials to ensure patients are placed on optimal therapies up-front in order to optimize their survival and other outcomes.”

Read the full story here.

Bayesian Research Published in Biometrics

Gillings biostatistics assistant professor Matthew Psioda and professor Joseph Ibrahim worked with additional co-authors from industry to publish a recent paper in Biometrics. The paper, titled Bayesian design of biosimilars clinical programs involving multiple therapeutic indications, focused on the proposal of a Bayesian design framework for a biosimilars clinical program that requires conducting concurrent trials in multiple therapeutic indications. This is an effort to establish equivalent efficacy for a proposed biologic compared to a reference biologic in each indication to then support approval of the proposed biologic as a biosimilar.

Their method allows for information borrowing across indications with the help of a multivariate normal correlated parameter prior (CPP), which is constructed from hyperparameters that are easily interpreted. These represent direct statements about the equivalence hypotheses that will then be tested. The CPP is accommodating to different endpoints and datatypes across indications, and is therefore able to be used in a large context of models without needing to modify the data.

The study illustrates how one can evaluate the design using Bayesian versions of the power and type I error rate. The goal is to determine the required sample size for each indication such that the design has high power to demonstrate equivalent efficacy in each indication, reasonably high power to demonstrate equivalent efficacy simultaneously in all indications, and reasonable type I error control from a Bayesian perspective. The method is demonstrated through the use of several examples, including designing biosimilars trials for follicular lymphoma and rheumatoid arthritis using binary and continuous endpoints, respectively.

Read the full paper published in biometrics here.


Dr. Jane Monaco

Dr. Jane Monaco

Jane Monaco, DrPH

Position: Clinical associate professor and director of undergraduate studies, Department of Biostatistics

Time at the Gillings School: I became a student here in 1996 and joined the faculty soon after graduating. I’ve been on the faculty for about 15 years.

What I do (and why I love it): I focus on teaching and administration. In particular, I love teaching and advising undergraduate students and leading classes for online and non-major students. I’ve been teaching online for more than 10 years now, and I like it because most of the students also work full-time and can draw on that experience. They’re able to appreciate that biostatistics has a practical, applied purpose – they’re in class specifically to learn how biostatistics can inform their own discipline. Because of my teaching experience, I’m currently part of the team working to develop a quantitative course for the new MPH Core.
What I love most about my job is working with students. Our undergraduates are exceptionally talented and hardworking – they are every teacher’s dream! They enter the School with stellar backgrounds and such an eagerness to learn.

First job or Internship I had was: It was working in a small women’s clothing store in Hickory, North Carolina. That city was a special place to grow up, with real family values. After graduating high school, I pretty quickly moved into teaching jobs. As an undergraduate at N.C. State, I taught Calculus I during the academic semesters and spent summers working with the Duke University Talent Identification Program.


Biostatistics leadership transition – Professor Kosorok to return full focus to research and teaching

Professor Kosorok Opens Bios 70th Conference

With the start of the New Year came the announcement that Biostatistics chair professor Michael Kosorok will be stepping down in July after serving as department chair for 13 years. Kosorok’s service as our chair began in 2006 and has since brought the department many accolades. The department has achieved nationally higher rankings among biostatistics departments. In addition, both the Biostatistics faculty and student body grew during Kosorok’s period as chair, with some of the world’s greatest statisticians walking our halls.

The contributions of Kosorok are wide and far, and his academic and intellectual leadership will leave an everlasting mark on the Biostatistics department, the Gillings School of Global Public Health, UNC-Chapel Hill, and the health of the public.

Kosorok is remaining on the faculty as W. R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Biostatistics and Professor of Statistics and Operations Research at UNC-Chapel Hill. He will also continue on as a committee member tasked with exploring the creation of a School of Data Science at UNC, an undertaking that demonstrates Kosorok’s importance as a thought leader at Carolina.

The department will soon be launching a nation-wide search for the next chair of Biostatistics, led by Beth Mayer-Davis, Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor of Nutrition and Medicine and chair of Nutrition. If the search is not complete prior to July 1, 2020, the department plans to appoint an interim chair.


Bios has four new Phi Beta Kappa inductees

Thirteen students from the Gillings school were recently inducted to Phi Beta Kappa, the country’s oldest and most honored college honorary society. Less than 1% of all college students qualify.

From the Department of Biostatistics, Donald Luke Fejfar, a junior with a biostatistics major and chemistry and biology minors; Ben Lee, a junior with a biostatistics major and a computer science major; Alicia Peterson, a senior with a biostatistics major and mathematics and urban studies and planning minors; and Eileen Jueming Yang, a junior with a biostatistics major and a mathematics minor.

Phi Beta Kappa was founded in 1776 as a society devoted to the pursuit of liberal education and intellectual fellowship. To this day, it continues to honor those who achieve excellence in a broad-based exploration of arts and sciences during students’ undergraduate years. Eligible students in the College of Arts & Sciences are required to have completed 75 semester hours of graded academic course work while maintaining at least a 3.850 grade point average. Students in undergraduate professional degree programs who have completed 105 semester hours must have a 3.750 grade point average to also be eligible.

Read the full story here.

Working to improve healthcare, Professor Preisser receives PCORI funding for five years

Professor Presisser

Professor John Preisser, is receiving funding from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) to further his research on Incomplete Stepped Wedge Designs.

Pragmatic cluster-randomized trials are commonly used in health intervention research. They aid in improving health and behavioral outcomes in vulnerable populations by assessing quality care improvement programs in hospitals or primary care medical practices. The planning of such cluster trials requires a judicious allocation of resources. It is due to these finite resources that researchers must choose a particular study design that will maximize the statistical information producing generalizable findings.

The objective of Preisser’s study is to formally quantify trade-offs involved when logistical, resource, and patient-centered considerations are balanced against methodological implications in cluster-randomized trials employing incomplete stepped-wedge designs in health intervention research. In the trials, clusters (hospitals, medical practices, nursing homes, prisons) will start out in the control condition and, at randomly assigned periods, they will transition to the intervention. For the first time, this study will characterize the efficiency and validity of incomplete stepped-wedge designs with categorical patient-centered outcomes in addition to continuous ones.

Read the full research description here.

Important Student Date Reminders

41st Annual Minority Health Conference: Truth to Power2020 minority health conference graphic

Friday, February 28
William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education, Chapel Hill
Register here.

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