Come next Fall, graduate students pursuing a new area of expertise will arrive on campus for the Master of Biostatistics program, a brand new addition to the Duke University School of Medicine.
The program, which was approved by the Board of Trustees in May, will be offered by the Department of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics and its staff will include more than 45 faculty members. It will be a two-year program, with the first year consisting of core courses and the second of electives and a master’s project.
Greg Samsa, director of graduate studies for the department, called biostatistics “the application of statistics to problems in biology and medicine.”
“The natural people for this program would be people who have an interest in both,” Samsa said, adding that applicants with an interest in applying their skills to human health would be strong candidates.
Samsa said the program has been in the works for a couple years, during which it was closely scrutinized by people from a variety of disciplines and points of view.
“The University has a wonderful process of review in the sense that it’s very extensive and you get comments from a number of perspectives,” he said. “It takes a while to work through that process, but in the end you feel confident that you’ve thought through pretty much everything.”
Samsa said the primary driving force for developing the program was an “imbalance between the supply and demand” for professionals in the field.
“At Duke, we’re constantly recruiting biostatisticians,” he said. “In addition to meeting what we see as an identified need, we can also help ourselves by recruiting some of our graduates.”
Elizabeth Delong, chair of the department, said that new areas of scientific inquiry have led to a significant increase in demand for biostatisticians that is not being met due to a scarcity of undergraduate biostatistics programs.
“There’s a lot more recognition of the need for biostatisticians,” she said. “We’re now getting a lot more data with the genomics explosion, so we especially need them for analyzing and designing studies that use genomic data.”
She added that the electronic storing of patients’ medical records has also dramatically increased sources of clinical data because “you can do a lot more retrospectively using electronic data.”
Samsa emphasized that Duke’s program is unique—not only because there are relatively few such programs nationwide but also because of its innovative approach to the discipline. In seeking input from a number of sources, Samsa said he learned that qualified biostatisticians must have strong analytical skills and a strong background in biology. But they must also have another trait.
“All our interviews said [biostatisticians] need to have excellent communications skills,” Samsa said. “They have to be good enough communicators to be able to speak with their colleagues, extract the core of what’s being studied and translate that into language people understand. No one teaches that. What’s going to be unique about our program is we’re going to teach the communication skills that are so essential to success.”
Because this is the first year the University is offering the program, Samsa said he does not know how large the first class will be. Jonathan Hecht, the program’s coordinator, noted that a similar program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is “very small.”
Delong said she and the faculty in her department are looking forward to the program.
“Our faculty really do want to teach,” she said. “They want to spread the word and... prepare people for eventually working in this area.”
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