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March 15, 2018

The Center for Statistical Consulting’s New Director Envisions a One-Stop Shop for Data Analysis Needs

UCI’s research community gained a new ally with the hiring of a full-time director for the Center for Statistical Consulting. Dr. Joni Ricks-Oddie, who stepped into the new role in February, will also serve as head of the Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Research Design (BERD) unit within the Institute for Clinical and Translational Sciences (ICTS). By managing both the consulting center and BERD unit, Ricks-Oddie plans to streamline processes and improve efficiency so the two groups operate in synch with one another and become a “one-stop shop” for the UCI community and affiliated organizations.

“We want to enhance the data quality so that UCI is better positioned to write successful grants and to design studies with a clear and well-thought-out analysis plan, making the project more easily funded,” says Ricks-Oddie. The center also has outward-facing services for local affiliates in need of data analysis services.

Ricks-Oddie comes to UCI after receiving her Ph.D. in epidemiology from UCLA, and spending more than five years as a statistical consultant and data scientist at UCLA’s Institute for Digital Research and Education (IDRE). She is currently working on a business plan to align the consulting center and the more medical- and clinical-focused BERD unit. Then, once that plan is in place, she’ll turn her attention to better promoting the available services and offering a variety of training seminars for faculty and students.

Statistical Consulting Services
“Now that I have my data, how do I analyze it?” Ricks-Oddie often hears this question from researchers overwhelmed by the analytic needs of their data or unsure of which software best meets their needs. The Center for Statistical Consulting and BERD unit offer assistance through a mix of free and fee-based services. Free 30-minute weekly drop-in appointments are available, where researchers can bring in their data to ask basic questions about their analysis. They can also ask questions about their study design.

“There’s only so much we can do with your data once it has been collected,” explains Ricks-Oddie, who encourages people to take advantage of the free walk-ins to preempt problems that might later complicate data analysis. One group of students recently leveraged this option, coming to the BERD unit before going to Panama this summer for a global health project. The students wanted to know how to construct their survey — what questions to ask and how to record the data. “Those types of things are really important,” notes Ricks-Oddie, “because you don’t want to send somebody off to another country to collect data that they later can’t analyze.”

Consultants can also provide more in-depth fee-based services through both the Center for Statistical Consulting and BERD unit. They can create well-designed studies with actionable aims, identify which statistical method best meets a project’s needs, interpret study results or prepare and review grants and manuscripts. For faculty members who wish to include a statistical consultant as part of a research grant proposal, one of the consulting groups can be included in the proposal as performing the data analytics.

Consultants can also compare different statistical software programs, such as R, SAS and STATA. “A lot of times, students are given data sets or a research project, but there might not be a class that teaches them how to analyze the data in commercially available software,” says Ricks-Oddie. Similarly, consultants can review basic techniques, such as the T-Test or chi squares, which students often learn about in class but rarely apply to real-world data. According to Ricks-Oddie, “real-world data doesn’t look pretty like the stuff you see in class. You might have to recode a variable or create new ones.”

To help people better understand – and access – the variety of services offered, Ricks-Oddie will be revamping the Center’s website and reaching out to organizations across the campus to promote the services.

Collaboration and Training
The creation of this full-time position also presents new opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, with the previous director, Associate Professor of Statistics Babak Shahbaba, taking on the role of faculty liaison. With Ricks-Oddie managing the consultants, Shahbaba can focus on how faculty in the Department of Statistics can better offer support.

When the center receives a data analysis request requiring specialized expertise, “there could be some deeper research questions that the investigator might want to pursue with a [statistics] faculty member,” says Shahbaba. “So that’s my role — matching the project with a statistician. I’m sort of the matchmaker.”

This could then lead to new methodologies that address not only the problem at hand but also other scientific problems in a similar setting. “As a statistician, that helps motivate the research that I do, so I’m not just working on some abstract problem. I get to work on a real-world problem and hopefully help the consulting center as well,” says Shahbaba.

Ricks-Oddie agrees that this should increase collaboration, and she’s pleased to have the additional support. “The really nice thing about UCI is that the consulting center has a built-in faculty liaison with Babak Shahbaba, so if there are questions beyond the skillset of our five statisticians, we [have] access to high-level expertise.”

In addition to working closely with the statistics department, Ricks-Oddie plans to reach out to other academic and administrative departments, including student affairs and the Graduate Resource Center, to identify areas of need. The Center for Statistical Consulting can then fill the gap by offering related seminars and training sessions.

As Ricks-Oddie points out, “we’re blessed to have these kinds of offerings in the UC system — individuals who are dedicated to helping UCI researchers put out high-quality publications and grants and build up the research community.” Ricks-Oddie’s own dedication to the community is evident, as is her enthusiasm for high-quality research: “There’s a lot to do, but it’s genuinely a fun job to interact with researchers.”

Shani Murray