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When Joni Ricks-Oddie became the first full-time director for the Center for Statistical Consulting in February 2018, her goal was to make the center a “one-stop shop” for data analysis. By also serving as head of the more medical- and clinical-focused Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Research Design (BERD) unit within the Institute for Clinical and Translational Sciences (ICTS), she aimed to better align the two groups to address a wide variety of campus and community needs. Since then, the Center for Statistical Consulting has redesigned its website to better advertise its services, hired an additional senior statistician and developed more training sessions, and entered into a new partnership that expands the center’s reach.

As highlighted on the updated homepage, the center helps investigators at all levels of research, from grant proposal development and sample size calculation, to data analysis and manuscript preparation. The testimonials appearing online are evidence of the high quality of work. According to Steven Cramer, professor of neurology in the UCI School of Medicine, the work performed by the center for his clinical trial was “consistently excellent” and he would “recommend their services without hesitation.”

You can visit the website to request a consultation and learn about upcoming training sessions, such as the Power Analysis in SAS Workshop, designed by the newly hired senior statistician Farideh Dehkordi-Vakil. Tasked with revamping previous seminars offered through the center and coming up with new short courses, Dehkordi-Vakil, who started in February 2019, hasn’t wasted any time. With 20-plus years of experience teaching statistics at Western Illinois University, she is more than qualified to create short courses on a wide range of topics.

“One of the main questions that we usually get from the researchers,” says Dehkordi-Vakil, “is how many subjects do I need in order to make sure that my results can be relied on?” To help answer this question, she developed the upcoming workshop on sample size and power analysis. Online registration for the $10 course, being held May 7-8 from 3-6 p.m., is now open, and the topic applies to many different fields. “Attendees could be in education, physics, biology, chemistry, medicine or the social sciences, including political science,” she says.

In fact, the center doesn’t just help with basic scientific research. “Even administrative questions can often be answered from a statistics point of view,” explains Ricks-Oddie. Although nearly 80 percent of their work is statistical analysis for a research or grant-related project —they co-authored five publications in the past year — that is not all they do. “We had a lecturer from the School of Biological Sciences who wanted to explore how to seat students for exams such that students who tend to finish faster could sit on the outside instead of the inside to minimize distractions.” They have also fielded questions from UCI Hospitality and Dining Services regarding finding optimal seating arrangements and predicting when students use the cafeteria the most.

“We’re trying to work to get the word out about the services that we offer,” says Ricks-Oddie. “Sometimes people just don’t think of ways that they could utilize our services separate from grant proposals or manuscripts being submitted to a journal.”

Personnel from the Center for Statistical Consulting (from left): Director Joni Ricks-Oddie, Business Manager Jodi MacGregor and Senior Statisticians Megan Smith and Farideh Dehkordi-Vakil. (Not shown: Faculty Liaison Babak Shahbaba.)

The team also performs statistical analysis for outside companies and organizations. They have a couple of ongoing projects — one with a search engine optimization company, working with clients to predict the best keywords, and another with a risk management company for banks, mitigating risks in certain financial sectors.

“There’s a lot of uses for models that predict certain types of behaviors,” says Ricks-Oddie, “whether it’s financial behavior, students and how they seat themselves, or animal behavior.”

In addition, through ICTS, the center recently signed an agreement with Chapman University to provide statistician services. “Chapman had expressed that they needed support statistically [and] wondered if they could use the resources we have here at UCI,” says Ricks-Oddie. “Through the agreement, they’ll have access to both the Center for Statistical Consulting and BERD.”

Ricks-Oddie also works with Children’s Hospital of Orange County through ICTS. “The projects can run the gamut, from treatments for cancer to studies of infections and different kinds of projects on their patient populations.” She plans to reach out to other hospitals and universities as well. “I do see more of these kinds of partnerships in the future.”

With the center’s previous director, Associate Professor of Statistics Babak Shahbaba, now acting as the faculty liaison, the center is ready to tackle any project thrown its way. “There are times when there’s a particular project that requires a specific skill set or a novel strategy, and Babak is really great about interfacing and helping me navigate the faculty here or anyone else on campus who might be helpful to answer a certain type of question if it’s beyond the experience that we have.”

Ricks-Oddie says that the goal is to keep growing and eventually hire additional staff. Based on her first year of work, expect to see more training sessions and partnerships emerging from this one-stop shop in the coming years.

Shani Murray