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Biostatistics: Power Behind the Protocol

Who provides fuel for the engine of medical research — helping design studies, analyze data and report results? Biostatisticians.

By Elizabeth Jane Walker; Photo by Seth Dixon

Motomi Mori

Motomi Mori, PhD

Let’s play the word association game: What springs to mind when you hear the phrase “clinical trial”?

Perhaps you think of doctors and nurses. Of tests and treatment. Of chemotherapy and surgery.

If your answer is “biostatistics,” you’re in good company.

Medical research begins and ends with biostatistics — the branch of statistics that deals with biological data.

At St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Motomi Mori, PhD, leads a staff of 60 individuals who support all the institution’s clinical trials.

“We help design the research studies,” says Mori, chair of Biostatistics. “How many patients must be enrolled to answer a particular research question? What kind of statistical analysis should be used? What kind of data needs to be collected?

“After the study is complete, we are the ones who get the data, analyze it, help the scientists prepare their manuscripts and share the results.”

Resources and researchers

Mori’s team supported 274 projects from 122 investigators in the last six months alone. More than 140 of those projects were clinical studies, many of which extend across multiple years.

For decades, scientists at St. Jude have turned to the Department of Biostatistics as a shared resource — their secret weapon for designing, running and reporting the results of their research.

Mori, who joined the institution two months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, is committed to maintaining that robust level of support. Simultaneously, she aims to build an environment where biostatisticians can perform independent research that will increase the stature of St. Jude and enhance the knowledge base for the entire field.

Hot commodity

In 2009, the chief economist at Google surprised a New York Times reporter by predicting that the “sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians.”

Eleven years later, biostatisticians indeed became a hot commodity, as news outlets clamored for experts to help explain the scope and threat of COVID-19.

“I have never seen so many biostatisticians on the national news,” Mori’s husband marveled.

The media sought answers when people around the world began asking how the pandemic would affect them. How many individuals would be infected? How many would be hospitalized? How many would die? How would data modeling influence policy decisions?

“Everybody was looking at the data,” recalls Mori, who wonders whether the recent media attention might cause a spike in the number of children who one day enter the field. “People were looking at the shapes of the curves and how many cases we had. They were watching the trends. They were also changing their behavior in response to predictions — which meant the predictions would then change, as well.”

On the local level, she and Greg Armstrong, MD, of St. Jude Epidemiology and Cancer Control assisted with the local pandemic response through participation in a data monitoring group and a joint task force. They helped individuals from Mid-South universities, law enforcement, emergency services, governments and school districts better understand and appropriately respond to national, regional and local data.

Throughout these crisis-planning interactions, Mori says, the collaborations have been overwhelmingly positive.

“The pandemic brought together people from the city, the county, the health department and our St. Jude Infectious Diseases department — people I would probably never have interacted with under normal circumstances,” she says. “It’s been an interesting year.”

 
 

We help design the research studies. After the study is complete, we are the ones who get the data, analyze it, help the scientists prepare their manuscripts and share the results.

Motomi Mori, PhD

 
 

Connected to the mission

Individuals in the Department of Biostatistics hail from 11 countries, speak 16 languages and are fluent in 15 computer languages. Mori says this disparate group is united by the hospital’s mission, even though most patients and families are unaware of their existence.

Through their work on research projects and clinical trials, St. Jude biostatisticians are helping to increase scientific knowledge and save young lives.

“We don’t treat the patients, but we see them on campus,” Mori says. “That’s a daily reminder to us. Going into work each day, we pass by the statue of St. Jude Thaddeus. And every time we walk across campus, we see the children and their families — and we remember why we’re here.”  

 
 

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