How I Became a Director of Biostatistics and Research Data Governance

May 06, 2019

Elizabeth Garrett-Mayer, PhD, is the division director for the Division of Biostatistics and Research Data Governance in CENTRA (the Center for Research and Analytics) at ASCO. Prior to joining the staff at ASCO in 2017, she was director of biostatistics at the Hollings Cancer Center and professor of biostatistics at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). Before moving to South Carolina, she was a faculty member in the Division of Biostatistics in the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University.

How did you initially choose your current career path? Were there any unexpected detours along the way?

EGM: I have always loved math: geometry, algebra, calculus, probability, etc. As a math major at Bowdoin College, I took some probability and statistics classes and I knew I had found my calling. Just before my senior year, I started looking into graduate programs that would fit my interests and came upon the areas of biostatistics and epidemiology. I had never heard of either but as I learned about them, I realized that the types of research questions they addressed were exactly the kinds of questions I wanted to answer. I was accepted into several programs, and ultimately enrolled in the biostatistics PhD program at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health.

When I was near completion of my PhD, I was seeking a position with more senior colleagues in biostatistics that would provide strong mentorship. That led me to the biostatistics group at Johns Hopkins Cancer Center, where I worked with Steven Piantadosi, MD, PhD; Steven Goodman, MD, PhD; and Giovanni Parmigiani, PhD, among other outstanding colleagues.

One of the most transformational experiences in my career was my mother’s journey with breast cancer. I had been working in cancer research at Hopkins for about 6 years when she was diagnosed, but as a statistician, I didn’t have any interactions with patients. My mom underwent surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and reconstruction. Going through the process by her side (sitting in the waiting area during surgery, taking her to her appointments, watching her receive her chemotherapy infusions, listening to her explain the side effects of treatments she was receiving) gave me an entirely new perspective on the patient experience and the importance of the work all of us contribute to cancer research to ultimately improve the lives of patients with cancer. I’m happy to report that almost 14 years after her diagnosis, my mom continues to be cancer-free.

I must admit: I did not deliberately seek a position in oncology, but feel so fortunate to have spent the last 20 years working in cancer research.

Describe your typical work day.

EGM: As with many ASCO staff, my days vary quite a bit. But, on a normal day, I spend several hours doing data analysis for a collaborative project with another ASCO department. Right now, I’m engaged with projects with ASCO’s Center for Integrity and Law (CEIL), Clinical Affairs Department, and CancerLinQ® where I am analyzing data. Some of the projects are traditional research, where we plan to publish the findings. Others are more for internal evaluation of our processes or metrics. I usually spend an hour or so working with the Targeted Agent and Profiling Utilization Registry (TAPUR) Study team; the work might involve performing simulations to determine how many patients we expect to enroll next month, or working to prepare a report for TAPUR’s Data Safety and Monitoring Board. And, on most days, I spend time on new programs in CENTRA, including the Data Library and Member Research Survey Pool (MRSP) that are being developed within CENTRA.

If you have to pick one aspect, what part of your job is your favorite? What part is the most challenging or frustrating?

EGM: I don’t think I can pick just one favorite aspect. First, I love working in diverse research teams. Not only is it rewarding to be a part of impactful research projects, but when the team members have different areas of expertise, we all end up gaining new knowledge in every project. My other favorite aspect is seeing someone who thinks “statistics is hard” realize how helpful and enlightening statistics and data displays can be when clearly presented. Seeing that lightbulb go off when someone gets it is very gratifying.

The most challenging aspect of my job is working with messy data. I love being a statistician, but I do not enjoy intense data clean-up projects!

What do you wish you had known before you chose your career path?

EGM: I spent most of my training focusing on probability, statistics, and public health. Had I known I would spend my career in cancer research, I would have supplemented my training with basic science (e.g., genetics, cancer biology) and computer science.

Why would you recommend this career to someone starting out in oncology biostatistics?

EGM: There are many reasons that oncology biostatistics is a great field. Just to name a couple: First, you have the opportunity to work in a team-based setting on projects that can really make a difference in people’s lives. Second, as a statistician, there are many different kinds of studies and kinds of statistical methods you can use in cancer research. It keeps it interesting!

What kind of person thrives in this professional environment?

EGM: Being a good statistician is important, but being a good communicator is critical. You must be able to communicate the results of your statistical analysis to a non-statistical audience (and make that lightbulb light up!). Also, oncology biostatisticians must be able to juggle a lot of competing demands on their time; statisticians are usually working simultaneously on many different projects and are faced with competing deadlines.

What advice would you give to early-career oncology professionals on how to have a productive and collaborative working relationship with their biostatistician colleagues?

EGM: Some colleagues think the statistician is an all-knowing oracle; others treat statisticians as though they are simply technicians. Statisticians in cancer research teams are neither of those things—we are team members. We need to be included in the project from the beginning to the end to help develop the project and see it through until the final reports and manuscripts are completed. Get your statistician involved early in the planning of your project or grant, as you are developing your aims and determining your design and endpoints. Engaging a statistician after you’ve written the majority of the project and are only interested in a power calculation is a sure way to make your statistician feel like they are not a valued part of the team. And, do not list a statistician on your project or grant unless you have asked them to be a part of your team. I’ve reviewed both grants and protocols where my name was listed as a co-investigator, and yet I was not aware of the project!

"How I Became” is a series about the numerous and varied career paths in oncology. In each issue, a member will discuss their career journey and give an insider’s view of their profession. Email to tell us what career paths you’d like to see covered, or to contribute to this series.

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