What Is Biostatistics?

Almost daily, the popular media report new research findings related to human health.

  • A new treatment for HIV disease works better than current therapies
  • High blood pressure is demonstrated to be associated with heart disease
  • A study suggests that a certain pollutant may be harmful to humans
  • Hormone replacement therapy is determined to carry increased risk of certain types of cancer (and the evidence is so compelling that the study is stopped earlier than planned)

Such results are the work of multidisciplinary teams of researchers, including physicians, public and environmental health specialists, and BIOSTATISTICIANS. Biostatisticians play essential roles in designing the studies, analyzing the data, and creating new methods for addressing these problems.

There is a critical shortage of biostatisticians with graduate training, and their skills are in great demand.

So What Is Biostatistics?

Statistics is the science that:

  • develops methods for asking the right questions
  • designs studies for collecting data relevant to answering the questions
  • summarizes analyses and draws conclusions from the data

Statistics combines mathematical theory with knowledge of the specific challenges arising in different areas of science, making it a rewarding field of study for students who like math and quantitative problems and want to contribute to the advance of broader scientific understanding. Biostatistics is the exciting field of development and application of statistical methods to research in health-related fields, including medicine, public health and biology.

Since early in the 20th century, biostatistics has become an indispensable tool for understanding the cause, natural history and treatment of disease in order to improve human health. Biostatisticians work with scientists to identify and implement the correct statistical methods for designing studies and analyzing and interpreting the results. And as science progresses and new ways to measure and collect information become possible, new statistical techniques must be developed. With the breathtaking pace of science today, the skills of biostatisticians are especially in demand because of:

  • new advances in bioinformatics and computational biology, genetics, neuroimaging, environmental science and many other areas
  • the ability to collect, store and manipulate vast amounts of data, including electronic health records

These new challenges are giving rise to novel problems needing new statistical solutions. Biostatisticians are the experts who can make this happen!

Opportunities for Biostatisticians

Biostatisticians with graduate training are needed who can:

  • collaborate with scientists on conception, design, analysis and interpretation of novel studies
  • address new challenges arising from advances in biomedical science
  • train the next generation of biostatisticians
  • Doctoral-level biostatisticians are needed in academia as faculty to teach graduate courses, direct student research and develop new methods
  • Master’s and doctoral-level biostatisticians are sought to collaborate with investigators in institutions such as cancer research centers and medical schools on the design, analysis, and interpretation of studies
  • Federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration hire biostatisticians with graduate training to carry out research and to collaborate on setting of policy and approval of drugs
  • The pharmaceutical industry is a major employer of biostatisticians, who work in every aspect of drug development

Starting salaries are competitive, and the work is very rewarding!

Training to Be a Biostatistician

Graduate-level training in biostatistics is available in Departments of Statistics and Biostatistics in universities nationwide. Students come from a broad variety of undergraduate majors including statistics, mathematics, computer science, engineering, biology, physics, economics, psychology and education. A background in calculus and linear algebra and computing experience is very helpful. An introductory statistics course covering the basics of statistical thinking is also good preparation.

Upon enrolling in a graduate program, students take courses in statistical theory and methods. Theory courses provide the mathematical foundation underlying statistical methods. Methods courses focus on the appropriate use of statistical techniques for different types of problems. Further courses build on this background, covering specialized topics such as the analysis of survival data, longitudinal data analysis and advanced statistical modeling.

An excellent way to find out if biostatistics is the right career path for you is to enroll in the Summer Institute in Biostatistics!