When Kimberly Siegmund, PhD, co-founded the Los Angeles Biostatistics and Data Science Summer Training Program (LA’s BeST) in 2019, the six-week program was the first of its kind in Southern California. Four years later, the program has survived the pandemic, and is thriving under the leadership of Siegmund and Juan Pablo Lewinger, PhD, both faculty in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at Keck School of Medicine of USC.
Along with only about a dozen other programs in the U.S., each summer LA’s BeST introduces approximately 14-16 young people to the basics of biostatistics and data science, and provides them with opportunities to network and learn about career opportunities. The program also covers the cost for each trainee to travel to Los Angeles, live in the city for the duration of the program, and earn two academic credits from USC to transfer back to their home institution. “I think it’s important,” says Lewinger, of covering costs, “because the idea is that people who otherwise might be working in the summer can actually take the time off to be in the program.”
LA’s BeST, which is open to U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have completed at least two years of undergraduate study, has two main goals. The first is to introduce the concepts and skills necessary to understanding biostatistics and data science. Trainees take class in the morning with a variety of faculty members from the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences, where, in addition to learning, they can make connections with mentors who are experts in their field. In the afternoon, trainees work together on group projects, putting their new skills into practice and preparing for a culminating poster presentation at the end of the program. They also hone presentation skills by recording in USC’s Soto Studio.
The second goal of the program is to brief trainees on variety of career paths in biostatistics and data science. To accomplish this, Siegmund and Lewinger arrange for cohorts to visit prominent employers in Los Angeles, where trainees can gain information and make connections. The faculty directors also arrange workshops on a variety of career topics – including preparing for graduate school, as many careers in the field require advanced degrees.
A main objective of the program – and the grant that funds it – is to aid in diversifying the field of biostatistics and data science. Applicants from underrepresented groups are especially encouraged to apply to LA’s BeST, and the program is set up to serve those trainees. “Typically, underrepresented minorities are a very low percentage in biostatistics and math sciences,” says Siegmund. In addition to providing career support to young people, she and Lewinger are keenly aware of how a diversified workforce benefits underrepresented groups in population health. “We definitely have blind spots in research,” says Siegmund, “and if we’re not diverse, we’re not hitting a diverse target either.”
Just a few years after welcoming its first cohort, LA’s BeST is proving to be successful in igniting a passion for biostatistics in young people. Daniel Rud is one alumni who has returned to USC to earn his PhD in biostatistics. “I really had a passion for statistics, and I enjoyed math in general… but I wasn’t exactly sure how I would apply myself in my future career,” says Rud. “I found a love for biostatistics because there’s a beauty in merging statistics, biological sciences and computer science to make a field that is so applicable in our society today… I thought that biostatistics was one of the best avenues within the field of statistics for truly helping people.”
Rud’s focus is on building statistical models for highly correlated data. He is about to publish his first paper, where he presents his methodology with an application analyzing pollutant exposure on Autism prevalence, with his advisor Lewinger. He is also working on a second project investigating how genetics may influence disease risk with special regard to interactive effects with common environmental exposures.
Rud currently collaborates with some of the same organizations he was introduced to through LA’s BeST, and credits the program with showcasing the myriad of career possibilities in the field of biostatistics. “They showed us places where there’s such a widespread application of biostatistics in industry – pharmaceutical companies, research and development, medicine,” says Rud. “It really shows that if you pursue an education in biostatistics, it’s not just a degree – there are jobs out there where you can really apply yourself in the field.”
Eric Kawaguchi, PhD, assistant professor of population and public health sciences at Keck School of Medicine, can attest to that. The Southern California native started his journey at a similar program at University of Iowa a decade ago, and now teaches in the LA’s BeST program. “It left an impression on me,” he says of the program and mentorship he received as a trainee. “And so, my door is always open to these students.”
Kawaguchi is the first in his family to go to graduate school, something he thought of as “far-fetched” before attending his training program. “I didn’t really have a lot of mentors or people to ask, ‘how is it to get a Master’s degree, or a PhD?’… it seemed very overwhelming, very daunting,” says Kawaguchi. “Going to the program really helped, because I actually talked to professors who were doing a lot of research. I talked to PhD students and graduate students and saw what their experience was like… After, it seemed a lot more attainable.”
Siegmund and Lewinger also believe the connections trainees form are pivotal in helping young people achieve their goals. “Now they’re connected with [faculty], and that opens a possibility for those who want to pursue graduate studies or get recommendations from us, and they develop a connection with a TA, so they have somebody who they can ask questions about careers or being a graduate student,” says Siegmund. “They come out of this with a network that they wouldn’t have had otherwise,” adds Lewinger. “The network is the strongest benefit… It’s not the main purpose of the program, but it’s a nice side effect.”
LA’s BeST faculty are excited for trainees to experience how biostatistics goes beyond equations to influence lives and populations. While a general science and quantitative math background is necessary for success in the program, Lewinger notes that prior knowledge of – or even familiarity with – biostatistics is not necessary. “Perhaps [young people] realize they don’t want to do pure math, or they also like medicine. They can apply math to medical research,” he says. “They don’t have to know that something called ‘biostatistics’ even exists before coming to the program.”
LA’s BeST is an annual program that runs mid-June thru the end of July. Applications for the summer of 2024 open on December 1, 2023. More information is available at lasbest.usc.edu.