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Department of Biostatistics

Fan Li

Fan Li

Fan Li is a 2005-2006 PhD graduate of our department. Now an associate professor at Duke University's Department of Statistical Science, she works extensively on statistical theory, methodology and applications, with particular interest in causal inference and Bayesian analysis.

How did you get interested in the field of biostatistics? What was your background before enrolling at Hopkins?

I had a BSc in mathematics from Peking (or Beijing) University before I came to the states. My introduction to Hopkins Biostatistics is very unorthodox; in fact, I knew literally nothing about biostatistics at the time I applied. During my last year of college, I was lucky enough to know Dr. Ying Qing Chen, an alumnus of Hopkins Biostat and, at the time, an assistant professor at UC-Berkeley's Department of Biostatistics. He encouraged me to apply to Hopkins Biostat and generously offered to write me a recommendation letter despite meeting me only twice. He happens to be the same person who encouraged me to apply to Peking University's Math Department a few years before that. I took upon his advice wholeheartedly even without knowing anything about biostatistics. Largely thanks to his recommendation, I was admitted with full funding to the PhD program at Hopkins biostat. It was a dream coming true for me! This random path seems to work out well for me so far.

How did Johns Hopkins Biostatistics prepare you for your career? What aspects of the program did you find most useful?

Hopkins Biostatistics provided me with solid theoretical and applied ability in statistics, trained me to have a genuine appreciation for real-world applications, and also equipped me with an open mind and a positive attitude towards research. The extraordinary quality of the faculty of Hopkins is inspiring – these professors are role models. I am especially grateful to my advisor, Constantine Frangakis, who taught me not only how to be a good researcher, but, more importantly, how to be a good person, and how to treat students with respect and care.

What are your favorite memories of your time at Johns Hopkins Biostatistics?

The people! I had lots of fun with my fellow students, many of whom I still keep close contact with. I also love the parties at Dr. Mei-Cheng Wang’s house, as well as the various parties at other faculty members' homes (Scott, Rafa, Brian, etc). I have very fond memories of the terrific staff members (Mary Joy, Patty). Last but not least, I love the Baltimore blue crabs (and later I realize that many of them actually come from North Carolina)!

What advice would you give to prospective students?

I think when choosing an advisor, it is important to pick someone whom you feel comfortable to work with and who is working something of real interest to you, rather than just count how many papers you will get in a few years or follow the "hot" trend.

The same applies when you choose a university, the most important thing is to find the chemistry and feel right. There are indeed always ranks of stat and biostat depts., but do not let these ranks dictate your choice. Frankly, to me the difference between most of the top 10 stat/biostat dept in terms of research is ignorable; the bigger difference lies in the culture.

Describe your current position and responsibilities in a way that will inform prospective students about career opportunities in Biostatistics.

I am an associate professor in the Department of Statistical Science at Duke University. As most faculty in research universities, research, teaching and mentoring students are my main responsibilities. The research part includes publishing papers and writing research grants, both statistical methodological ones and interdisciplinary collaborative ones; it also includes giving talks in conferences and seminars. As I am an associate editor of three journals, I also spent quite some time reviewing papers, as well as grant proposals for NIH and NSF. Occasionally I do statistical consulting for industries and government agencies. Overall, my schedule is a very busy, particularly when I am teaching. Nonetheless, I still get some time to relax in our mountain cabin during weekends.

What about your experience at Hopkins that would be useful for prospective students and/or helping current students? This can include your experience in Baltimore.

One suggestion is to take as many courses as possible on a broad range of topics, even if they may not be directly related to your thesis topic. Graduate period is probably the last chance you would have the time and energy to systematically study many topics, which will eventually all be helpful especially if you pursue a career in academia. I was too lazy to take many classes offered at Hopkins and I deeply regretted it.

Because I didn’t have a car when I was a student, I did not really explore Baltimore beyond Hopkins. Baltimore may never hit the list of “best places to live in U.S.”, but it is a charming and fun city with some quirks. The proximity to DC is also a plus. If you care about the other side of Baltimore, I would highly recommend the remarkable HBO series “The Wire” – I think Hopkins Homewood Campus actually offers a class on this.

What has been your most satisfying job experience using your biostatistics background?

I had two formal jobs since graduation, first as a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Medical School Dept of Health Care Policy and then as a faculty in Statistics at Duke. My biostatistics background usually makes it very easy for me to communicate with collaborators in the medical school and across the campus, and the experiences have been very satisfying in both jobs.

What reasons might you give to encourage a prospective student to get a master’s Biostatistics degree at Hopkins?

Now our dept at Duke started our own MS program, I have a better appreciation for the master degree at Hopkins biostat. There is a substantial demand for biostatistical analysis in industry, government agencies as well as universities (particularly in medical schools and public health schools). Most of such analyses do not require “fancy” PhD thesis level methods, but still requires some rigorous training in statistical thinking and practice. I think Hopkins Biostat MS program serves this goal very well.

Can you describe your day-to-day life as a graduate?

My daily-routine as a lazy graduate: Struggle to get up in the morning to attend classes, I admit with guilt that I often skipped morning classes because I couldn’t get up even though I lived 5 minute-walk away from the school (Reed Hall); go to surrounding areas such as the Market to get lunch; read papers and program, and have fun with my officemates; cook for dinner and then do the endless homeworks; then internet surfing until exhausted; finally collapsed into bed way after midnight. During weekends, my kind friends will give me a ride to the great Hmart in the west end of Baltimore to stock up groceries for the next week. It was fun, but I probably should have worked much harder than I did.

Please list any notable accomplishments that you would like us to highlight.

I guess getting tenure at Duke may be counted as an accomplishment, however, as some wise people told me, the only people who NEED tenure are those who do not deserve it… Anyway, I think accomplishments are very subjective things. To me, being able to research what I like and feel relevant and mentoring students is my biggest accomplishment (at work).