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Exploradio Origins: The Evolving Role of a Biostatistician


"There are technologies that we can use now like next generation sequencing where it allows us to take a really teeny tiny piece of DNA or RNA and generate thousands if not millions of measurements. And then we sort of look at each other like, now what do we do?"

Jill Barnholtz-Sloan is a biostatistician and professor in Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine. She’s using statistics and math to help researchers untangle risk factors and survival factors for different types of brain tumors.

"There's lots of different ways that you can study a disease in a population, but we focus a lot on, what are the causes and risk factors for developing brain tumors - and then what are the factors associated with response to treatment and survival?"

These seemingly simple questions are very hard to answer, but Barnholtz-Sloan’s statistical analyses enable investigators to draw mathematically valid conclusions from huge data sets.

"It's very daunting to look at these huge datasets and just be like, 'hey, let's see what we see.' The mathematics are trying to catch up to the technology," Barnholtz-Sloan said. "But we have been able to show that there are some new genetic risk factors that we didn't know about, that the genetic risk factors vary by the type of brain tumor that you have that we can use now."

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Kellen McGee is currently pursuing a PhD in nuclear and accelerator physics at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2014. She’s held a number of research positions, ultimately becoming a research assistant in a biophysics and structural biology lab at Case Western Reserve University. There, the Institute for the Science of Origins instantly became her intellectual home. Central to the ISO’s mission is science communication.