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Studying Statistics Down Under

Statistical Sciences Student, Professor Head to Australia for Biostatistics, Epidemiology Experience

By Tara Roberts
Photo courtesy of Michelle Wiest

Lucas Tate at Murdoch Children's Research InsitituteLucas Tate is putting the statistics and mathematics skills he’s gained at the University of Idaho to work across the globe.

Tate, a graduate student in statistical science who is originally from Kennewick, Wash., is spending the next several months at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, or MCRI, in Melbourne, Australia.

His work is funded through the Australia Awards Endeavour Fellowship, an Australian national program that seeks to build links among global researchers.

The award allows Tate to expand his knowledge of medical statistics and epidemiology – the study of the patterns and effects of diseases within populations – and put that knowledge to work. His projects so far include helping with randomization for clinical trials, conducting analyses and doing calculations to support MCRI researchers’ work, as well as designing a web application to help students visualize basic statistics concepts.

“The best part is that the research being done here is really impactful on the health of the populous,” Tate said in an email from Melbourne. “It is a neat thing to be a part of.”

Tate’s path to Australia begins with close working relationships with his statistics professors at UI. He first came to campus as an undergraduate, earning a degree in mathematics with an emphasis on actuarial science and finance. He then worked in the professional world for a year and a half. Christopher Williams, the chair of statistical science at UI, convinced him to further his education and return to earn his master’s degree.

“I enjoy statistics because it transcends individual disciplines and allows me to look at problems in virtually any field,” he said. “I like to think of it as a universal research language by which we can measure and communicate results.”

Inside the Murdoch Children's Research InsitituteTate learned of the Australian Endeavour Award from Williams and Michelle Wiest, an assistant professor of statistical science at UI who spent the 2012-2013 school year at MCRI’s clinical epidemiology and biostatistics unit. Tate said Wiest was particularly influential in helping him secure the award.

“Lucas was the perfect candidate for the award,” Wiest said. “His stellar performance in both his undergraduate degree in math and master’s degree in statistics, along with his keen interest in helping researchers, made him a perfect fit.”

Wiest is also in Australia again, collaborating with biostaticians at MCRI on a project investigating associations between mothers’ blood and their babies’ cord blood, with the goal of better understanding an underlying cause of early-onset cardiovascular disease.

Wiest said Tate’s award and her work at MCRI are good first steps in expanding opportunities for statistics students to engage in clinical research.

“I wanted my time in Australia to benefit not just me, but my department and the university if possible. While we have many strengths, opportunities to get involved in clinical research in northern Idaho are limited,” she said. “The Endeavor award was a way that I could use my connections in Australia to create an avenue for our students to obtain not only experience in clinical research and biostatistics, but also gain international experience for a broader perspective.”

Tate plans to complete his master’s degree before he leaves Australia in July. And while he’s not sure what opportunity will come next, he knows his experience will strengthen his skills as a statistician and researcher.

“I have always enjoyed applied statistics, because methods in the context of a real-world problem is just how I learn,” he said. “What makes medical statistics and epidemiology gratifying is that you feel like by reporting what the data is indicating, you are contributing to a collective knowledge that hopefully results in some benefit or new understanding.”