Turning a Passion for Math into a Career in Public Health

Michael Boehnke

Michael Boehnke

Richard G. Cornell Distinguished University Professor of Biostatistics

Over the course of Michael Boehnke's 35-year career, human genetics and statistical genetics have gone from relatively obscure fields to among the most exciting and talked-about areas in science.

"In 1983, when I was looking for a job, there were exactly zero jobs advertised in statistical genetics," says the Richard G. Cornell Distinguished University Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. "At the time, I had no idea the field was going to blow up the way it has. It just seemed like an exciting thing to do."

The Simplicity of Genetics

Boehnke studies the genetic basis for human health and disease, and he's worked with a range of diseases, from diabetes and breast cancer to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

"One of the things I like about genetics is that it's actually quite simple," he says. "The human genome is big—three billion base pairs—but three billion is a finite number and it uses a simple four-letter alphabet. We can measure a person's genome very accurately, and we can do it just once and it won't change. Measuring things like what we eat, how much we exercise—that's complicated. And ideally we would measure those things constantly, not just one time, and then we would need to summarize all that information. In comparison, genetics is simple."

Boehnke's work focuses on the combination of developing statistical and computational methods of analysis of genetic data, and using both his own methods and others to analyze data on a variety of human diseases and traits. He's been working on type 2 diabetes since the mid-90s and leads the FUSION project, which aims to understand the genetic basis of type 2 diabetes.

"We're looking at sites in the genome where people with diabetes and people without diabetes differ," he says. "We can find genetic variants that make it more or less likely for people to have type 2 diabetes. And this isn't just for diabetes—we can use the same method for disease-related traits like glucose levels and BMI and for other diseases, like schizophrenia."

At the same time, Boehnke says it's important to be humble as a geneticist, because genetics is only one driver of health and disease. For example, in type 2 diabetes, lifestyle and behavior play a much larger role than genetics.

"We have a type 2 diabetes epidemic going on in the US and the world right now, and that's not because our genomes are changing quickly," he says. "It's more because more of us are leading sedentary lifestyles and eating too much. Still, understanding the genetics behind a disease is vital to precision health and developing personalized approaches to diabetes prevention and treatment."

A Lifelong Passion for Math

Boehnke loved math since he was a kid and majored in mathematics at the University of Oregon. However, by his junior year, he started to worry: "What am I going to do with a math degree?"

He thought about going to law school, but he didn't want to give up on math. A mentor encouraged him to consider mathematical biology.

"I hadn't taken a biology course since the seventh grade, so I read a biology book," he says. "When I got to the chapter on genetics, I thought, 'Woah! This is probability. I like probability. I'm even good at it.'"

After graduating, Boehnke traveled to Freiburg, Germany on a Fulbright scholarship and then applied and was accepted to the biomathematics graduate program at UCLA, where he studied statistical genetics.

UCLA is also where Boehnke met his now wife, Betsy Foxman, professor of epidemiology at Michigan Public Health. They decided to get married two weeks after their first date, and four months later they were married. 

I love this university, and what it stands for is deeply meaningful to me. The idea of the uncommon education for the common man totally resonates with me.

After completing their doctoral degrees, Boehnke and Foxman were faced with a challenge. "We were looking for two jobs for two people in obscure fields in the same place," he says. Fortunately, they were both able to find positions at Michigan Public Health, and they have remained here ever since.

"As west coasters, we never really saw ourselves putting roots in the Midwest, but we couldn't be happier in Ann Arbor," Boehnke says. "I love this university, and what it stands for is deeply meaningful to me. The idea of the uncommon education for the common man totally resonates with me."

Teaching Biostatistics to 'Nonbelievers'

Boehnke enjoys teaching specialized courses on statistical genetics and mentoring PhD candidates in biostatistics, but he says one of the most rewarding teaching experiences for him has been Biostatistics 501, which he has taught nearly 20 times over the last 35 years.

This introduction to biostatistics course is geared toward students who don't have a mathematics background and typically draws Michigan Public Health students studying health behavior and health education and health management and policy as well as other graduate students from across campus.

"I think of it in some cases as selling the product to the nonbeliever," Boehnke says. "I try to get all students to recognize how important statistics is to them, even if that's not what they came to graduate school to study. If we're going to be effective public health professionals or researchers, it is critical not to underestimate the importance of statistics."

His hope is that when students complete the course, they feel comfortable talking and working with statisticians, understand basic statistical analyses and interpretations, and are more informed when reading and understanding scientific literature.

"Of all the teaching I do, I think this is where I have the opportunity to make the biggest impact," he says.

My whole career has been driven by doing things that I think are important, cool, and fun. I feel very lucky to get paid to do this work.

 Finding Balance—and Having Fun

Outside of work, Boehnke enjoys travel, running, and spending time with his family. He and Foxman have three adult sons and one granddaughter. Their middle son, Kevin Boehnke, graduated from Michigan Public Health with a PhD in environmental health sciences in 2017.

"You have to make decisions about what's most important to you. For us, it's each other, our kids, and our jobs—in that order," he says.

"When we were getting started a lot of people told us that you can't have two careers and kids and make that work," he adds. "That's completely wrong. Betsy and I had kids when we were both still assistant professors. It was harder; it was more work. But it was possible and, for us, totally worth it."

For Boehnke, it all comes back to doing what he loves: "My whole career has been driven by doing things that I think are important, cool, and fun. I feel very lucky to get paid to do this work."