REFEREEING THE GAME: BIOSTATISTICIANS DEFEAT CANCER WITH
Biostatistics plays an essential role in today’s
When East Bay veterinarians started to suspect that neighborhood cats might be catching leukemia
from one another, they called on researchers at the State Health Department in Berkeley to investigate.
Enter Laurel Beckett, then 17 years old with a single statistics class under her belt. As part of an
undergraduate internship through the National Institutes of Health, she joined the state statistician
assigned to study the problem.
"It was before we knew that feline lymphomas and leukemias were contagious, and it was a challenge
just to figure out the incidence of the illness in cats," Beckett says today, several decades later.
Like a detective story, the investigation offered mystery, a chance to neutralize a killer and
a lot of plodding legwork. "Were cats even regularly distributed throughout the city? We didn't know,"
Growing up, Beckett always liked math. But she thought a career in abstract equations would be "deadly
dull." The summer studying cats hooked her on biostatistics, however. The field combines mathematics
with medical research, and has become essential to scientific studies.
Beckett majored in mathematics at Pomona College in Claremont and spent every summer as an undergraduate
pursuing NIH-sponsored research projects. She later earned her doctorate in statistics from Stanford.
She has since held faculty positions at Harvard Medical School and Rush School of Medicine in Chicago,
among other institutions. Three years ago she was recruited by the UC
Davis School of Medicine to build a new division of biostatistics in the Department of Epidemiology
and Preventive Medicine.
Under her leadership, the division has grown from two people, including Beckett, to five full-time biostatisticians
plus support staff and graduate students. And as more grants flow in with the division's assistance, she
hopes to further expand the program.
Marc Schenker, professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, says establishment
of a biostatistics program has been invaluable to the cancer
research program at UC Davis.
"Any serious comprehensive cancer center requires biostatistics support for a whole range of studies,
dealing with everything from prevention to clinical trials," he says.
One of the division's primary responsibilities is to provide statistical assistance for every research
study conducted under the auspices of the UC
Davis Cancer Center. Beckett likens her role to that of the referee in a football game.
"We're not the quarterbacks," she says. "We're not the glamour players. Instead, we keep
people playing by the rules. We're essential to the game."
Ideally, biostatisticians are involved from a study's inception. After learning as much as possible about
the problem to be solved, biostatisticians help design the study to ensure the hypothesis is tested in
a rigorously scientific way.
"A good statistician is rather like Perry Mason in the climactic courtroom scene, where he asks
the key question and suddenly the answer to the entire crime unfolds before your eyes," Beckett says.
Among other things, biostatisticians make certain researchers enroll sufficient numbers of people or
laboratory animals in a study. These research referees also determine how long a study needs to last.
And they set up randomization plans for double-blind studies, in which subjects are randomly assigned
to two or more study groups. Neither the researchers nor the study subjects know which group a subject
is in until the study ends.
Later, biostatisticians use their expertise to analyze study results. They can distinguish real differences
from chance variation. If results become clear sooner than expected, they may recommend a study be halted
Beckett says she thrives on the diverse nature of her work. One week she may be analyzing a study of
barriers that prevent cancer patients from participating in clinical trials. The next week she may be
figuring out the best way to identify biomarkers in cancer cells.
She also loves to share her passion with others. Her teaching responsibilities give her the chance to
expose young researchers and junior faculty members to real-life experience with biostatistics.
Last spring Beckett taught a course in clinical trials to graduate students. At the time, Gerald DeNardo,
director of the radiodiagnosis and therapy program at UC
Davis, approached her with a problem. He was trying to treat tumors in lab mice with a new antibody
technique. The tumors varied tremendously in their growth patterns. How could he tell if the treatment
Beckett immediately assigned the challenge to her class. One student came up with a particularly good
analysis and interpretation, continued to work on it after the course was finished, and will be named
as a collaborator when the paper is published. She thinks she just may have this student hooked
the way she was with cats.
Beckett's infectious enthusiasm has not gone unnoticed. Last year she received the Dean's Award for Excellence
in Mentoring in Medical School. The $2,000 award
recognizes medical school scholars who excel at helping junior faculty succeed in the clinical, research
and teaching arenas.
It comes as no surprise. Beckett's students indeed anyone who spends more than five minutes with
her knows that statistics is not only important, but also far from deadly dull.