Statistically Significant Event

Statistically Significant Event

Questions for Dick Cornell, Professor Emeritus of Biostatistics

This year the UM SPH celebrates the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Department of Public Health Statistics and the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Department of Biostatistics. As a former department chair, what do these anniversaries mean to you?

Cornell: They remind me that it’s developed into a very large and successful department.

You joined the department in 1971. What were the challenges back then?

When I first came, the department was quite small, and students had been mainly supported by a biometry training grant, which was a federal program. But the federal government had recently discontinued that grant program, so the faculty were thinking they might have to discontinue the graduate program. They only had two students left who were continuing past the master’s into the doctoral program. I encouraged those students to stay, and we sought ways to support them. We got involved in a number of collaborative arrangements with the Medical School and other groups, involving both research and student support. The loss of the training grant probably turned out to be a good thing in that it led to an expansion of the department. Before that we’d worked almost entirely with the Department of Epidemiology, which is understandable because the biostatistics department grew out of the epidemiology department.

How would you characterize the field of biostatistics today?

It’s not tied to epidemiology nearly as closely as it was. One reason for that is the growth in the research connection with the drug industry. When negotiations are carried on with the Food and Drug Administration, you not only have to have a physician involved in the hearings but also a biostatistician to evaluate the data. That rule was put in place quite a few years ago.

What changes have you witnessed over the years in your old department?

When I was at SPH we were involved in some genetic studies, but now they have a separate division dealing with genetics. Of course that whole field of DNA research is new since I started. We were involved in cancer research and other areas, and now they have a separate coordinating center for cancer studies.

You retired in 1996. How do you spend your time these days?

We still live in the same place we did during the time I was working at SPH. We have a ten-acre plot out in the country, and we do a lot of gardening. We grow vegetables, mainly. My wife puts them up for the whole year.

A Statistically Significant Event
As his department celebrates its first half-century of existence, Rod Little, chair of the School of Public Health Department of Biostatistics, notes five of its greatest achievements :

  1. Richard Remington’s early and popular text on biostatistics methods, plus seminal texts by other UM SPH faculty on multivariate analysis, survival analysis, and missing data.
  2. Contributions to fundamental changes in the U.S. system for determining organ-donor allocations, thereby saving the lives of many indi-viduals with end-stage heart, kidney, liver, and lung disease.
  3. Randomized designs that reduce the number of trial participants who receive an inferior treatment.
  4. The identification of nine Type 2 diabetes gene regions in a paper in Science magazine, which Time magazine cited as one of the ten most exciting medical breakthroughs of 2007.
  5. Highly cited methodological contributions by UM SPH biostatistics faculty and students in many areas, including longitudinal data analysis, analysis with missing data, survival analysis, statistical genetics, and survey sampling.