April 9, 2018

Biostatistics Training Initiative boosts Ontario’s cancer research community

Dr. Gregory Pond, Jenna Sykes, Dr. Richard Cook, Yonathan Brhane, Dr. Wei Xu

Dr. Gregory Pond, Jenna Sykes, Dr. Richard Cook, Yonathan Brhane, Dr. Wei Xu.

Cancer researchers often confront quantitative challenges and puzzles that are best addressed by biostatisticians – specialists in a field for which there is a growing demand. In a 2008 survey of Ontario oncologists, eight in 10 respondents identified the lack of trained biostatisticians as a factor limiting their progress in cancer research. OICR has recently renewed funding for the Biostatistics Training Initiative (BTI) following a successful review. With this funding, the BTI will continue to benefit Ontario’s cancer research community and  develop the next generation of cancer biostatisticians. The BTI is run in partnership with in the University of Waterloo and McMaster University.

Over the past eight years, the BTI has supported 35 interns, three fellows, and hosted numerous biostatistics seminars led by world-renowned guest lecturers. OICR, the founder and funder of the BTI, is proud to continue supporting the Initiative for an additional two years – sponsoring eight new internships and five new fellowships at Ontario cancer centres.

“There is immense demand and competition for highly-trained biostatisticians across various fields in biomedical research. By supporting the BTI, we aim to highlight cancer research as a career opportunity for the next generation of biostatisticians and provide them with the hands-on training and experience that they need to excel in the field,” says Dr. Christine Williams, OICR’s Deputy Director. “Placing these individuals at Ontario cancer centres increases the province’s capacity for cancer research and accelerates the development of new methods to help patients.”

The BTI recently announced four new internships that will begin in May of this year. Prior to pursuing internship placements, students are trained at the University of Waterloo in relevant statistical theories and applications, including epidemiological methods, clinical trial design, longitudinal analysis and survival analysis. “We only send out the best students from our biostatistics program to participate in the BTI Internship Program,” says Dr. Richard Cook, professor of statistics at the University of Waterloo and co-leader of the BTI. “These top Master’s students are prepared to be as effective as possible throughout their internships – both in supporting their supervising researchers and growing as biostatisticians.”

The BTI also announced four new fellowships to begin in 2018 that will provide two-year placements for doctoral and postdoctoral biostatisticians. Fellows, like interns, have the opportunity to address various cancer research questions and develop novel biostatistical methodology.  “One BTI fellow, for instance, is helping uncover the interaction between genomes and the environment,” says Dr. Gregory Pond, Associate Professor at McMaster University and co-leader of the BTI. “His research group investigated data from 1,000 people, analyzed more than 1.6 million data points and published their findings in Nature Communications.”

BTI interns and fellows are immersed in a hands on learning environment and face real-world challenges alongside diverse teams of researchers. Jenna Sykes, a Research Biostatistician at St. Michael’s Hospital and former BTI intern, says, “The Internship Program taught me how to ask the right questions and explain very complicated methodology to collaborating researchers.” BTI interns have presented their research findings at scientific meetings on more than 40 occasions, and each former BTI fellow has presented at international peer-reviewed conferences.

The Initiative provides students with the opportunity to expand on skills acquired in school while inspiring students to contribute to the cancer community. Many former BTI interns, like Yonathan Brhane, now a Biostatistician at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, continue contributing to cancer research following their placements. “I realized there are new and emerging statistical methods in cancer research, particularly in cancer genetics, which I hadn’t learned in my academic studies,” Brhane says. “Eventually, I learned that there are many complex quantitative challenges that need to be addressed in this area, and those have shaped my research interests.”

To date, BTI interns and fellows have published more than 80 peer-reviewed publications during their placements. Dr. Wei Xu, a Principal Biostatistician at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, has mentored more than 10 students from the Initiative. In addition to providing research support, Xu says the BTI provides an opportunity for senior researchers to train the next generation of cancer researchers. “This fulfills one of our key responsibilities to contribute to the cancer research community.”

For further information, please visit https://uwaterloo.ca/biostatistics-training-initiative/.