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UCI Summer Institute Trains Undergraduates in Biostatistics and Data Science

This summer, UC Irvine was again one of only 10 universities in the U.S. to host a free six-week program to train undergraduate students in the fundamentals of biostatistics, data science and computing. For the second year in a row, the Irvine Summer Institute in Biostatistics and Undergraduate Data Science (ISI-BUDS) brought students to UCI from across the nation and, as part of the training, offered hands-on experience conducting cutting-edge biomedical research.

Run through the Department of Statistics in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), the ISI-BUDS program aims to excite students about careers and graduate school opportunities in biostatistics.

“Learning from professors and Ph.D. students and doing research opened the eyes of many students for what types of opportunities exist in the field of biostatistics,” says Jackson Sousa, who is studying economics and statistics at UC Davis. “This program has been very influential on my outlook for graduate school.”

The institute is part of the Summer Institute in Biostatistics program offered through the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). ISI-BUDS is the only institute also supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). “Our product is the success of our student participants,” says Statistics Professor Volodymyr Minin, who co-directs the program with ICS colleagues Dan Gillen, Babak Shahbaba and Mine Dogucu. “We want to increase interest in and access to advanced degrees in biostatistics and related career opportunities to address the growing demand for biostatisticians and data scientists. Careers in biostatistics often require at least a master’s degree, so seeing ISI-BUDS alumni applying to and getting accepted into statistics and biostatistics graduate programs tells us that we are succeeding in our mission.”

The ISI-BUDS Program
Of the more than 150 applicants, 15 students were selected for the highly competitive program, which includes up to $500 in travel expenses, free housing, as well as $1,000 for incidental expenses. The Department of Statistics Staff Team — Laura Swendson, Lisa Stieler and Kim Richter — went above and beyond to make sure the students’ stay in Irvine was comfortable and memorable. From July 10–28, 2023, students attended lectures and labs as they learned fundamental concepts from probability theory, data science, statistical modeling and scientific study design.

Fourteen students standing in front of a screen, showing the fifteenth student on zoom, with hands raised for the UCI zot.
The 15 ISI-BUDS participants (with one on zoom) on the final day of presentations, showing their UCI spirit with the Anteater Zot!

During the next three weeks, collaborating closely with research mentors, the students conducted research projects related to:

  • improving HIV and nutritional outcomes among women living with HIV in India,
  • conducting serum metabolic profiling for early screening of colorectal cancer,
  • analyzing Choroid Plexus-based biomarkers and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and
  • assessing and comparing research attitudes between Down syndrome caregivers and early Alzheimer’s disease caregivers.

“Our entire cohort was excited and grateful to be a part of this great program, primarily because we got to learn about an interesting field with great instructors and mentors,” says Paola Campos, a math major at Stanislaus State. Campos says the program created an environment where “everyone felt comfortable and excited to learn about biostatistics, [inspiring] many of us to continue on to graduate programs in statistics and/or biostatistics.”

In addition to Statistics Professors Dan Gillen, Volodymyr Minin, Babak Shahbaba, and Zhaoxia Yu, and Statistics Ph.D. students Thanasi Bakis, Isaac Goldstein, Thuy Lu, and Christina Magana-Ramirez, the following mentors from UCI worked with students on their projects:

  • Eric Doran, study coordinator;
  • Josh Grill, professor of psychiatry & human behavior and neurobiology and behavior;
  • Brett Johnson, assistant researcher of neurobiology and behavior;
  • Ira Lott, professor emeritus of pediatrics;
  • Ed Monuki, Warren L. Bostick Chair and professor of pathology;
  • Michael Neel, experimental pathology Ph.D. student;
  • Sanghyuk Shin, associate professor of nursing; and
  • Min Zhang, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics.

“The best part of the program itself was the mentorship provided to all of the students,” says Sean Leader, who recently began a master’s degree program in statistics at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “We had guidance through every step of the research process and were adequately prepared to take on the challenges presented to us.”

Students presented their research at a closing symposium, where the keynote speaker was Biostatistics Professor Ji-Hyun Lee, director of the Division of Quantitative Sciences at the University of Florida Health Cancer Center. “This is the second time we invited a high-profile researcher and a leader of the biostatistics discipline as the guest of honor at the ISI-BUDS closing symposium,” says Minin, noting that Lee is also president-elect of the American Statistical Association, the main statistical society in North America.

Exploring Opportunities
In addition to research and education, the program included career preparedness activities. Students attended a workshop on the grad school application process, participated in a Q&A with Ph.D. students, and received an outline of classes for a more competitive application.

“Many undergraduate students do not know about career opportunities in biostatistics or about why you would want to earn a graduate degree in this area,” says Minin. This is particularly true for first-generation college students, who made up one-third of the ISI-BUDS participants.

“First-gen students are the ones who are disadvantaged the most by having fewer people around who can explain to them what we call the “hidden academic curriculum” — unspoken conventions of the grad school application process and the best ways to plan your post-graduation future,” says Minin. “We are trying to demystify these conventions and expectations, so all students have the same opportunities to pursue meaningful and fulfilling careers.”

Students learned about a variety of potential pathways for biostatisticians at a career panel with ICS alumni:

  • Olivia Bernstein-Morgan, a statistician at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA),
  • Jaylen Lee, a principal statistician at UCI’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Sciences (ICTS),
  • Michelle Nuño, an assistant professor at USC, and
  • Yannan Tang, a senior statistical scientist at the biotech company Genentech.

Furthermore, ISI-BUDS co-directors added two new elements to the ISI-BUDS program this year. “We introduced a diversity, equity and inclusion panel to discuss ways we can increase diversity in biostatistics and in STEM in general,” says Minin. The DEI panel featured Minin along with

  • Catalina Medina, a statistics Ph.D. student at UCI who served as the moderator (and who also supported ISI-BUDS as a teaching assistant during the first three weeks of the program),
  • L. Paloma Rojas-Saunero, postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, and
  • Kyle Conniff, a statistics Ph.D. candidate at UCI.

The program also introduced a scientific writing workshop, run by ICS statistics Ph.D. student Federica Ricci, who discussed how to write a paper or scientific report. Speech coach and communications consultant Bri McWhorter returned this year and ran a workshop that introduced students to best practices of giving a scientific presentation.

“It truly felt like no problem was unsolvable because of the resources available to us,” says Leader. “Another amazing part of the program was the feeling of community; between the professors, graduate students and other undergraduates, I truly felt respected and valued by everyone.” Part of the community building effort involved outings outside of the classroom, exploring Southern California. ISI-BUDS participants, graduate student mentors, and faculty went on a kayaking trip, beach outing, whale watching cruise, and a trip to the Pageant of the Masters art show.

Group photo with a building that says “UCI Crew” and kayaks in the background.
ISI-BUDS students after a kayaking outing.

Success Stories
With five years of funding, the program will continue for at least another three years. To gauge its progress, ISI-BUDS co-directors have been looking at last year’s inaugural cohort. They are thrilled to report that two ISI-BUDS participants are joining UCI’s Ph.D. program in statistics this fall: Sarah Schlund and Sara Tyo. Another ISI-BUDS alum, Akhil Mohan, is starting UCI’s master of data science program. ISI-BUDS co-directors are also starting to receive reports from other students, including Warsame Mead, who will be earning a master’s degree in biostatistics from the School of Global Health at New York University, and Edward Ho, who will be earning a master’s degree in data science from the University of Pennsylvania.

“These are all ISI-BUDS success stories,” says Minin. He hopes ISI-BUDS directors will continue tracking the career trajectory of students who attended the program, highlighting their success and impact on the field.

Registration for next summer’s ISI-BUDS program will open in early 2024. Visit the application page for more information.

— Shani Murray