As a kid, UW Associate Professor of Biostatistics Noah Simon engaged in questions surrounding probability and how to make decisions about and from data. That’s what happens when you have an applied-mathematician-turned-statistician father and an older brother who grows up to be an experimental physicist.
“I didn’t know what math was but I wanted to do it,” says Simon.
Simon’s brother Jonathan, now at the University of Chicago, provided a roadmap for him to follow.
“My brother is five years older and always represented the next stage for me,” says Simon. "He was in high school when I was in middle school, college when I was in high school, and graduate school when I was in college. He made it easy for me to track the course I eventually ended up taking."
Simon adds, "He has a big lab and a big table with all sorts of cool devices on it. I would want a table with devices, but the best I can do is have a super messy desk and my big stuffed bear.”
Statistics was the focus of Simon’s graduate education but a desire for his work to have an immediate impact on people’s daily lives led him to biostatistics. Along the way, he discovered a passion for helping students and championing social justice.
How did you find your way from statistics to biostatistics and, eventually, UW?
In graduate school, I thought I would be a probabilist. But advice from a mentor and an abysmal score on the qualifying theory exam, turned me toward applied statistics. Which is fine because while probability is really interesting and important for some things, I think having a daily impact is much easier through statistics than probability theory, and through applied statistics more than theoretical statistics.
In a statistics department there are plenty of people doing important things and there are plenty of things developed that will be useful down the road. But I think that’s a little bit more hit and miss than, say, leading an effort that runs large trials for interventions in HIV. That’s obviously and immediately important, and maybe more painstaking and maybe less glamorous in some ways than machine learning or whatever the cool kids are talking about nowadays, but it is definitely incredibly meaningful. I’m working to do a better job of being involved with applications like that.
My PhD was in statistics but it was primarily working on biomedical problems in genomics so the pivot from a statistics department to a biostatistics department was relatively natural. When a position opened up at UW I thought it would be crazy not to at least apply. I received an offer to interview and decided to visit. It was a great experience. I do think actually engaging in the science, which is something this department does really well and this school does really well, necessarily helps your work be impactful.
And you look at who is in the UW biostatistics department and half of our department are scientific leaders, irrespective of biostatistics. They’re leading and engaging in important scientific projects that could change the daily lives of large numbers of people with regard to HIV research, air pollution, oncology, cardiovascular health, with regard to lots of different things.
What research are you working on at the moment?
I spend one day a week at Seattle Children’s Hospital working on cystic fibrosis. They’re a coordinating center that works closely with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to run lots of clinical trials and help direct research. I’m learning how trials in cystic fibrosis work, how cystic fibrosis works, what medications there are for it, etc. Most of my experience has been in oncology but because cystic fibrosis is a rare disease, things work differently. I think it’s really exciting and it’s a tremendous group down there.
I’ve also been talking to people at Kaiser Research about various projects. They have some interesting projects that try to figure out which patients are at risk of attempting suicide based on flags from doctor’s visits (e.g., medication refills). They have several million visits over millions of patients, and the goal is to use machine learning methodology to build predictions that will, hopefully, end up being used. I’ve been trying to learn more about the problem before I start thinking about how to apply tools.
And I’m also still working on clinical trial designs in oncology that use biomarkers (biological measurements of a tumor/patient). New treatments generally target a broad range of specific biological disruption that only occurs in a subset of cancers; in cancers where that type of disruption is not present, these treatments are generally unhelpful (and toxic). Unfortunately, it’s a bit tricky to figure out which tumors are susceptible to each given treatment.
The goal is to find biomarkers that will help us understand the biological disruption present in each given tumor. Understanding the biology of tumors in this way will help us select patients to enroll in clinical trials so that we can a) refine our understanding of which patients should receive which treatments; and b) show effectiveness of these targeted therapies by involving fewer patients and with less unnecessary toxicity. I’ve been engaging with some biotech companies on this as well as developing statistical methodology around the issue.
In addition to teaching and research, what else do you do within the department?
I’ve been working to support students in the department by serving on and chairing committees and helping students think about things such as what a dissertation involves, what it means to do research, how you can do research that you find meaningful.
Doing a dissertation is a combination of a) learning how to do research as well as b) trying to form yourself as someone who can decide what problems are important; and finally c) sharing that with the community and trying to convince the community that those problems are important.
I think often we are not explicit with students about what it means to do a PhD, and what “success” looks like. We set up formal and informal benchmarks, but don’t always engage the “why” of those benchmarks in discussions with students. Often if a given benchmark is an issue for a student, they can troubleshoot an alternative path that engages the same objectives, if only we let them. I’ve been trying to work with students in that regard. In addition, I am trying to engage with students so that they can inform how we as a department think --- in many cases the students are the most forward thinking of all of us!
You chair the department’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committee and serve on the school-wide committee as well. How did you become involved with EDI work?
To begin, I should emphasize that I have no expertise in this. I have learned and continue to learn more about this from people much smarter than I am.
I went through high school and college and was a bit of an idiot, to be honest. Growing up I was trained to problem-solve. And I think it’s easy to get tricked into thinking okay I can do this stuff, school’s not so hard. Why is it that some people struggle with this? What’s going on? You just do the work and things work out, right? As I actually experienced the world a bit more, and this took an embarrassingly long time, you learn that your experience is not everyone’s experience. And a lot of people have experiences imposed upon them that make it impossible for them to engage in a particular way.
My partner was instrumental in helping me understand things. She’s quite brilliant and engaged in social justice and has a critical theory-based understanding of social justice. When I was a graduate student she was a teacher in Oakland and I had the opportunity to go into the school and see what the experience is of students in different teachers’ classrooms. What it means to have a teacher who can really engage students, what it means to have a teacher who can’t engage students, and what it means if you have a parent who can engage you because they have a PhD in the field that you end up going into so maybe who your teacher is matters less. That was an eye-opening experience and useful in understanding a little bit more about how the world works.
In terms of committees, when I joined the department there was a school diversity committee that was relatively new. I was given the opportunity to join and am quite grateful for that. The department committee formed a couple years later and I was asked to join because people knew that I was very interested in engaging in the work. We’re lucky in that this department takes EDI work seriously and I think Patrick Heagerty, the department chair, has been great at making sure that the committee has the resources it needs.
Initially, not a lot happened because people were super busy with lots of other things and we didn’t have a lot of student involvement. Last year, my first year as chair, was also the first year students were involved and they played an enormous role. They have brilliant ideas and are incredible at getting stuff done. Although, we have to make sure that it doesn’t get in the way of their thesis work. That’s been the strength of the committee, that the students have insight and actually do things.
Looking ahead, what would you like to see with regard EDI?
The committee has many students members, but I am hoping to get a bit more faculty directly involved. The faculty are supportive of the efforts but they have an enormous number of things on their plate and a lot of those things are around supporting students. For example, our faculty fund all of the PhD students in our department. That’s an enormous amount of work.
So, we have to pick and choose what we do. People attack the work in different ways. And prioritizing, for example, student funding in a lot of ways does the same work. If we can’t fund our students then of course we can’t support under-served students in our department. Additionally, we are planning to have some departmental programming around issues of equity (we have readings and some events planned for the upcoming year).
At a broader level, as I learn more about things, I realize that some of the ways we evaluate people in our field is really subjective, but we treat it as objective: Did they have papers published here? Did they do statistical theory? That doesn’t actually mean that they’re doing good or useful things for the world.That doesn’t necessarily progress science.That doesn’t necessarily progress statistics.
What I would like to do is help us recognize the ways in which these things are arbitrary. So often, what the field and the world has tried to do with regard to social justice is to say, “How do we support people in reaching these arbitrary goal posts that we have set up?” But it seems like it would be really useful in our field to say, “What are the goal posts that benefit society and how do we set those up?” And maybe once we do that – and that’s a lot of work – some of the other problems go away.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I run really slow several days a week and I enjoy it. And I’m trying to learn chess. I’m not very good at it but I think it’s an interesting and useful experience to learn something that you’re not good at and to recall what that experience is.
I tried to learn Portuguese, although, I’m really bad at languages. That connects to the fact that I’ve spent a lot of time doing Brazilian jujitsu, 12 years at this point. A lot of the instructors are Brazilian and the people engaged in it are Brazilian and I’ve visited Brazil a couple of times, so it seemed like a fun language to try to learn.