Dr Karen Lamb is a biostatistician at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) at Deakin University. Karen is a Superstar of STEM with Science and Technology Australia and was kind enough to spend some time late last year answering some questions for me about her very interesting field of work.
Before I interviewed Karen, I hadn’t heard of a biostatistician (I am learning so much about the breadth of roles available in STEM fields!). Karen explained her role for me:
“I like to think of statistics as the science of answering questions” she said “In particular answering questions using data. As a biostatistician I work with researchers to answer questions about health”.
Karen has had an incredibly diverse career so far. She has helped researchers from disciplines such as medicine, biology and psychology, answer a range of questions like “what causes childhood cancer?”, “is this vaccine effective in preventing disease”, and “is exercise effective in treating back pain?”.
I asked Karen how old she was when she became interested in science and maths. She explained that while she liked science at school, she only became really interested in maths at university. She initially wanted to study English at university but decided that a degree in mathematics would offer better employment opportunities. It was at university that Karen discovered statistics.
There was a wonderful statistics department at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. They used practical examples from their own research, including research with local hospitals, environmental scientists and the veterinary school, in their teaching which really helped show how useful statistics was in a practical sense.
She knew she wanted to be a biostatistician half way through her undergraduate degree. She decided to do a PhD to open doors to more exciting opportunities either in industry or academia. Her PhD was looking at the effectiveness of a vaccine. Then her first real job was in neighbourhoods and health research where she helped on projects looking at how where people live and what they have available in their neighbourhood influences their health and behaviour.
While she was working in Scotland she met some researchers from Melbourne who invited her to visit their department. Following her visit she decided to relocate to Australia and find work opportunities here.
Originally she worked in cancer research at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute and was part of a newly established research centre aiming to build capacity in biostatistics in Victoria (ViCBiostat). She now works in behavioural health research at Deakin University and supports researchers looking at ways to help improve diet and physical activity, as well as studying links between these behaviours and chronic disease.
Karen says that people often assume that she is stuck in front of a computer all day but that isn’t the case, “I like to think of myself as a GP of science. I hold clinics where my colleagues can come and chat to me about all of their weird and wonderful research questions and it is my job to figure out how to help them answer these questions. I help my colleagues design studies to answer questions and assist them in planning how to analyse the data from these studies, as well as conduct the analysis and write reports on the findings when required”.
The best part of her job she says is getting to help so many people! “I can't stress enough how exciting it is to work with so many smart people across a range of disciplines and hear about their particular passions”.
Karen also points out that her skills as a statistician enabled her to move across the world to Australia! As there is a shortage of skills in this area she was able to get a sponsored work visa.
I asked Karen if there is a person from history that she admires in her field. Her answer was extremely interesting:
“As a female biostatistician, the obvious choice is Florence Nightingale, 'the lady with the lamp'. Florence Nightingale conducted statistical analysis of the health of members of the British army, finding some of the key causes of the high death rates to be due to polluted water and overcrowding, among other things. She was the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society”.
Finally Karen had some advice for young people considering a career in her field:
“I think the important thing to realise is that you don't need to love everything you study in mathematics. It is such a diverse subject that you can find your own niche in it. Also, don't be disheartened if, like me, you can't see the practical applications of what you are learning at school. Be inquisitive, ask why it is useful and where these methods are used in the real world. In addition to the above, one of my regrets is not studying computing at school or university. Being able to use computers efficiently is such an important part of my job and I wish I had taken the time at a younger age to develop the skills I need”.
Karen’s passion for statistics and health has enabled her to work in a broad range of fields and has allowed her to emigrate to the other side of the world from her home country of Scotland. Her insights show that far from being a theoretical field, statistics has extremely practical applications that are key to solving fascinating real-world problems!