Biostatistics: When math and health combine

What is biostatistics? Who practices it? Why is it important?

  • Denise Blough
July 26, 2021
What is biostatistics?

Numbers are powerful, especially in the context of public health and medicine. Whether it’s forecasting future infectious disease outbreaks, developing and testing new vaccines, or determining the impacts of racism on health, numbers play a vital and non-replaceable role in ensuring a healthy society — and there’s not much room for error.

That’s where biostatistics come in, said Kellie Archer, professor and chair of the Division of Biostatistics at the College of Public Health. 

Biostatistics is basically the role of developing and applying statistical methods to biological, medical and public health problems,” Archer said, adding that biostatisticians often devise new ways of looking at data to uncover the truth behind numbers and patterns. “We have to pull data from lots of different sources in meaningful ways so it can be used to produce solutions.”

Meredith McCormack-MagerFourth-year biostatistics PhD student Meredith McCormack-Mager was drawn to the field because of her passions for math and health care, as well as the wide variety of research areas biostatisticians can work in — from epidemiology to computer science to pharmaceuticals to oncology. 

“Biostatistical methods can be applied to any subject — economics, physics, history, sports. There are even biostatisticians who have been involved in analyzing French literature and identifying snails by their shell shapes,” said McCormack-Mager, who’s currently working with professor Abigail Shoben to study a new type of clinical trial design called stepped-wedge randomization.  

The field has also been critical to responding to COVID-19 — including predicting virus spread, assessing vaccine safety and efficacy, identifying mutations and researching the impact of the virus on daily life, she said.

Anna Eames Seffernick, a fifth-year biostatistics PhD student, said she was attracted to biostatistics for the versatility and freedom to continually ask new questions and explore novel concepts.

Anna Eames Seffernick“We’re involved in all stages of the scientific process,” said Eames Seffernick, who’s working on Bayesian variable selection models with applications to acute myeloid leukemia. “It’s important to be curious and creative.”

Students with an affinity for mathematics and an interest in developing computational skills are well suited for a career in biostatistics, Archer said, emphasizing that students don’t necessarily need a background in statistics to pursue the college’s graduate biostatistics programs. Ohio State biostatistics alumni have gone on to work for universities, private research institutions, hospitals, pharmacy companies, state and local health departments, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“Biostatistics is a very collaborative field, and in addition to math and programming, strong communication skills are absolutely vital to be able to communicate your work to diverse audiences,” Eames Seffernick said. 

With increasingly more research and personal data being generated, Archer said that biostatistics has an exciting future in areas such as personalized medicine, bioinformatics and disease mapping. 

“Biostatistics is a fairly young field and has a lot of opportunity for exploration in all areas,” McCormack-Mager said. 

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About The Ohio State University College of Public Health

The Ohio State University College of Public Health is a leader in educating students, creating new knowledge through research, and improving the livelihoods and well-being of people in Ohio and beyond.  The College's divisions include biostatistics, environmental health sciences, epidemiology, health behavior and health promotion, and health services management and policy.   It is ranked 19th among all colleges of public health in the U.S. by U.S. News and World Report, and also includes the top 7-ranked MHA degree program.  The College provides leadership and expertise for Ohio and the world through its Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Evaluation Studies (HOPES) and Center for Public Health Practice (CPHP).