Alumni spotlight: Joyce Niland shares a secret to a successful research career

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By Cristine Hall

Headshot of Joyce Niland

Alumna Joyce Niland, PhD, fell in love with biostatistics at USC as a graduate student in the 1980s. That passion paved the way for a rewarding research career.

Niland earned master’s degrees in physical therapy and biometry, as well as her doctorate in biometry from USC.  She is now chair of the Department of Diabetes and Cancer Discovery Science and the Edward & Estelle Alexander Chaired Professor in Information Sciences at City of Hope, an independent biomedical research treatment center for cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases. 

Niland, who is also City of Hope’s principal investigator mostly for large data coordinating center initiatives involving biomedical informatics, recently shared some tips for students looking at different career paths.

Were you always interested in science?

Math and Spanish were my favorite topics in high school. When I got to Stanford for undergrad, I started diverging away from those to figure out what fields might lead to a promising career. My last year there, they created a new major called human biology that I ended up choosing because it allowed pretty much everything I had taken—soft sciences and hard sciences—to count toward the major. I knew I wanted to be around medicine, but I didn’t want to be an MD. My roommate at Stanford went into physical therapy so I decided to follow suit. I had two great years of training at USC in the PT master’s program. Along the way, I took a required biostatistics course (called biometry at the time). It was so interesting. I loved it. I ended up getting another master’s and then my PhD in biometry, and I never looked back.

What is your most memorable experience at USC?

As an assistant professor of preventive medicine at USC, I was involved in one of the first studies of AIDS during the AIDS epidemic. Even before HIV was discovered, they didn’t know what was causing it. They just knew it was transferred by bodily fluids and transfusions. It was called the Transfusion Safety Study. Dr. Jim Mosley was the PI. Dr. Stan Azen and I set up the data coordinating center where we collected data and blood samples from donors in five cities around the country, four of which had high AIDS incidence and one was a control. We stored away all these tubes of blood and data on them. We created one of the first PC network database systems. When HIV was discovered, we were able to thaw 300,000 blood samples and test them for HIV. It turns out that 300 of the 300,000 were infected with full-blown HIV at the time the donor gave blood. After tracking down 100 living recipients of those infected blood samples, we were in a unique position to estimate the true transmission rate directly (~90%). It was very exciting to be on the cutting edge of HIV-AIDS research. In the middle of all that I was recruited by the City of Hope, which is where I am to this day.

What drew you to City of Hope?

It was a smaller and yet very highly regarded research institute, with the ability to rapidly translate new discoveries all the way into clinical trials, so it seemed like a good choice. It also gave me an opportunity to be a director for the first time, and to design the statistical analysis plan for over 120 clinical trials, mostly in hematologic malignancies. I was not only interested in biostatistics, though. My other main love really is biomedical informatics, using computers for medical research. I got into that field as well and ended up forming a department that included biostatistics, biomedical informatics and clinical research management, and I became the first woman chair at City of Hope.

What advice do you have for students now?

The grant world is very difficult, but if you continue to apply, you are likely to eventually succeed. My advice is to keep persevering. If you are pursuing grants, it really helps to get to know the experts in the field. Volunteer to be on study sections. I chaired the study section for the National Library of Medicine for a few years. When you’re helping to review other people’s grants, you really learn the nuances, the ins and outs, what are the review criteria, what they are looking for. It helps to have colleagues in the field, and to seek advice from the NIH project scientists and program officers. Those are some of the things I wish somebody had mentored me on at the beginning, but eventually I found the path to successful grant submissions.  I’ve now been awarded over $100 million in peer review funding as a Principal Investigator.

How has the pandemic impacted your life?

In our field we’re fortunate to be running what is called a “dry lab.” We’re dealing with data and computers, so we can work anywhere. I have people all over the United States. When the pandemic hit, it was not a big adjustment as most people already worked remotely. Our second home in Santa Barbara is becoming our main home, where I am right now. The beach has been a refuge and a haven to walk along it every day. It keeps me sane in these crazy times.