Alexandra Hanlon, director of the Virginia Tech Center for Biostatistics and Health Data Science, was recently awarded a $1.25 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a summer program aimed at promoting and diversifying the field of collaborative biostatistics.
The Collaborative Undergraduate Biostatistics Experience (CUBE), an eight-week summer program geared toward underrepresented undergraduate students, will receive $250,000 per year over the next five years through the NIH Research Education Program.
This R25 award, which is funded in a joint effort from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is specifically targeted toward enhancing data science research training in addiction research.
CUBE, which was piloted in the summer of 2022 and highlighted in the April 2023 edition of Amstat News, is built on four pillars: training in introductory biostatistics, training in R programming, professional development, and a collaborative research project addressing research questions in various disciplines.
“There’s no program like this in the country – not even close,” said Hanlon. “There are summer programs in biostatistics, but none like ours that heavily emphasize professional development, including communication and technical writing; the technical aspects of R programming delivered in tandem with the corresponding biostatistics training modules; and an interactive collaborative research project that includes the mentorship of a clinical investigator.”
This year’s program — which is also funded by the integrated Translational Health Research Institute of Virginia, Merck, and Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Sciences Institute and Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment — runs from June 5-July 28.
In addition to earning a $4,800 stipend, students enrolled in CUBE are provided with free housing. They are also afforded the opportunity to work closely with experienced collaborative biostatisticians, leading experts in the areas of addiction, and peer and graduate student mentors as they learn about the challenges of communicating and working collaboratively in a multidisciplinary team science environment.
Through CUBE, underrepresented undergraduate students receive an introduction to the world of collaborative biostatistics, opening up career pathways that they never knew existed. After participating in the CUBE pilot program in 2022, Kayla Williams, a recent graduate of Ohio State University, now plans to pursue her Ph.D. in biostatistics at Drexel University this fall.
“We need diversification in collaborative biostatistics,” Hanlon said. “The number of students in STEM continues to grow, but the percentage of underrepresented students remains very low.”
While the pilot program included just four students — two housed at Virginia Tech and two at the University of Virginia — and this year’s group features five students, the funding from this NIH grant will allow CUBE to expand to 10 students hosted at Virginia Tech each summer through 2027.
Still, Hanlon would like the program to grow even further to continue to raise awareness of collaborative biostatistics and diversity in the field. The ultimate goal is to expand the program nationally through multiple funding institutions across the country with centralized resources at Virginia Tech.
“We want to sustain CUBE for a long, long time,” said Hanlon.