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Marie Diener-West Installed as First Abbey-Merrell Professor of Biostatistics Education (web article)


Scott Zeger is still amazed. “I taught the introductory biostatistics course with Marie for four years, and within two weeks she knew the first and last names of all her students … then, she learned the first and last names of students in my class. I remember her approaching me and saying something like, ‘Scott, I think you better keep an eye on so-and-so—she may be getting lost.”

Marie Diener-West, PhD

Marie Diener-West, PhD

Professor Zeger, PhD, chair of the Department of Biostatistics at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was of course referring to Marie Diener-West, PhD, in his remarks during her December 6 installation as the inaugural Helen Abbey and Margaret Merrell Professor of Biostatistics Education.

Clearly gratified, Zeger, with a mathematician’s way of looking at the world, pointed out that this was “the Department’s first named professorship, with Marie being the first Abbey-Merrell Professor, in the first department of biostatistics, in the first school of public health.”

In his introduction, Dean Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS, pointed out that Margaret Merrell, Helen Abbey and now Marie Diener-West formed “an unbroken line as the students’ favorite teachers in the School—and they have all taught the subject that all students here fear the most.”

Citing Helen Abbey’s and Margaret Merrell’s unique influence on future students, Sommer noted that the two had taught virtually all MPH students at the School for about 70 years, and had produced three Lasker Award winners. Turning to Diener-West, he said with a wink that she “had better get busy.”

Not stopping for long to dwell on her own story, Diener-West gave the audience a quick tour of how biostatistics education for public health professionals has evolved at the School since her arrival here in the days of mainframe computers and punch cards. She indicated that the upshot of the flood of new statistical methods, ever more powerful computers, increased diversity and numbers of students, and new delivery systems, such as distance education, was that the "one-size-fits-all" brand of biostatistical education is no longer sufficient."

To adjust to these new facts of life, she said, the Department now offers not one but four biostatistics tracks:

  • one for those who wish to critically determine whether the methods employed in a scientific study are appropriate
  • a second for those who want to analyze data from of their own research or work with a team or researchers
  • and a third for those who wish to become professional biostatisticians
  • and a fourth for laboratory scientists

Diener-West said she is particularly gratified by the close-knitness, professionally and socially, of the Biostatistics team at Hopkins and its dedication to the School and the students. The excitement transfers to public health students. “It’s become a culture,” she said, with biostatistics themes arising at student parties, poetry (with titles such as “The Newness of Your Skewness”) and even the emergence of a biostatistics rap or two.

She said the Department is working to develop methods to reliably evaluate the Biostatistics Department’s teaching efforts, so as to improve active learning, address students’ different learning styles, and better educate educators.

Diener-West said finally that she had been embedded in the Department’s tradition of academic excellence from the start. “Helen Abbey was my first biostatistics instructor along with Alan Ross, Charles Rohde and others who also exemplified the tradition.”

Helen Abbey created the financial foundation for the Abbey-Merrell Professorship of Biostatistics Education with an estate gift; friends, alumni and faculty then completed it. —Rod Graham