Joanne Beer: Alumni Profile

Joanne Beer graduated in the spring of 2013, making her the first graduate of the MS in Biostatistics program at OHSU. She completed a thesis titled, "Power and sample size for time course microarray differential expression studies: a positive false discoery rate and permutation-based simulation method."

Joanne Beer photo 2014What is your educational background?

I have a B.S. in biochemistry from Portland State University (2010), an M.S. in biostatistics from Oregon Health and Science University (2013), and I am currently working on a Ph.D. in biostatistics at the University of Pittsburgh (expected 2017). In the past I was considering a career as a medical doctor, so I worked as an electronic medical records tutor for physicians and as an emergency department scribe at various hospitals in Portland, Oregon and in other states such as Washington, Alaska, and Mississippi. This was a great way to learn about how health care is delivered from an inside, 'fly-on-the-wall' perspective, and about what it is like to work as a clinician. I have done tutoring in math and sciences for about 10 years, which I still do on a part-time basis. I have also worked as a biostatistics teaching assistant at OHSU and at Pitt.


Why did you decide to pursue the MS in Biostatistics at OHSU?

I had never heard of biostatistics until a few months before I applied to the biostatistics certificate program at OHSU, in spring of 2011. The field seemed to combine many of my interests – biology, medicine, scientific research, mathematics. The interdisciplinary nature of biostatistics appealed to me. After enrolling in the certificate program, I kept hearing more and more buzz about 'big data' and an emerging field called 'data science.' It became clear that the skills taught in the biostatistics program at OHSU would be in high demand in sectors of academia, industry, and government. As Google economist Hal Varian said in 2009, 'I keep saying the sexy job in the next ten years will be statisticians.' Given the increasing amounts of data that are generated on a daily basis, it appears that the fields of statistics and biostatistics will continue to grow in importance over the next several decades. I had originally intended to finish the MS biostatistics program at OHSU, which was scheduled to begin the following year, before enrolling in medical school. Turned out that I decided to continue studying biostatistics instead!


How would you describe the learning environment in the required and elective courses?

In addition to biostatistics students, the core applied courses (BSTA 511-513) also included students from the Master's of Public Health and Bioinformatics & Computational Biology programs, which provided an enriching exposure to a diversity of perspectives. In the more mathematically advanced biostatistics courses (BSTA 550-552), I got to know the other biostatistics master's students in my cohort very well. We studied together on a weekly basis. The elective courses I took included computational biology (BMI 550-551). These courses had several guest speakers and interesting homework problems. In general, I found the professors at OHSU to be accessible and available for student questions both inside and outside of the classroom.


Can you describe a project that you worked on in the program?

In my biostatistics lab course (BSTA 510), I applied a method designed to remove unwanted variation from microarray data which had been collected on a sample of patients with an autoimmune disease called ankylosing spondylitis. For my master's thesis, I did a simulation study to assess a method designed to calculate power and sample size for time course microarray experiments. Through these projects, I became familiar with issues and concepts in the statistical analysis of high-dimensional data such as multiple testing and false discovery rate. I also learned about computing, including how to do parallel computing in R and cloud computing using Amazon EC2.


Can you tell use about your current job?

I currently work as a graduate student researcher for a geriatric psychiatrist at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. I help analyze data generated from a longitudinal epidemiological cohort study, which is focused on development of cognitive decline and dementia in an elderly population. For example, I recently learned a new statistical modeling methodology to examine the relationships between trajectories of cognitive functioning and trajectories of depression symptoms.


Did the MS in Biostatistics help you obtain this position, and if so, how?

Yes it did. Not only did it help in my acceptance to the Ph.D. program, as a student with a master's degree I have been eligible to work in slightly more advanced positions as a teaching assistant and graduate student researcher.


How do you apply concepts and skills that you learned in the program in your daily work?

My work involves using skills I learned in the program such as exploratory data analysis, data visualization, model fitting and assumption checking, and communication of statistical concepts and interpretation of results to collaborators from other fields. The biostatistics courses in the Pitt Ph.D. program build directly on the statistical theory and application skills I learned in courses I took at OHSU. Also, I can't stress enough how useful it is to have had experience with software packages such as R, SAS, Stata, and LaTeX.


What kind of advice would you give to potentital applicants to the MS in Biostatistics program?

Get to know the faculty members and other students. Form study groups! Some of the more theoretical material can be difficult at first, and it really helps to have at least one other person to talk it through with outside of class. I really enjoyed the Sunday afternoons spent with classmates in a conference room on campus, during which we shared a variety of delicious foods and practiced working out problem solutions on a whiteboard.