The University of Washington Department of Biostatistics is celebrating a major milestone as it graduated the first students from its Master of Science Capstone program this past Winter quarter.
“We started designing the MS Capstone program six years ago and now, almost two years into it, it’s a thriving academic program,” said Adam Szpiro, associate professor of biostatistics and the MS Capstone program director.
Developed to meet the needs of students who want to enter the job marketing upon graduation, the 18-month MS Capstone program aims to prepare students to work in many different health-related and data-driven fields. The program offers specialization pathways in data science, statistical genetics, and modeling and methods and provides students with both practical and theoretical knowledge, including a final a group capstone project.
This year’s wide-ranging projects included:
- “Developing Proxy Measures for Functional Limitations Due to Back Pain to Improve Treatment Outcomes” – Department of Radiology and Neurological Surgery, UW Medicine
- “Using Administrative Data to Identify Cancer Cases for Research” – Women’s Health Initiative, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
- “Using Hyper-local Air Pollution Data to Advance Environmental Justice” – Aclima, Inc.
“The capstone project gave me the opportunity to work with clients from industry and apply statistical methods in solving real-world problems,” said Yuhan Wang, who will start her career as a statistical analyst/biostatistician.
“Through the process, I realized the importance of communication and project management skills as well as technical skills. Also, the real-world project was more open-ended than a class project, which required us to specify the project goal, narrow down the research scope and always have a big picture in mind.”
Yitao Wu’s capstone project may lead to a published paper.
“The project was a great opportunity for me to transfer knowledge from textbook to practice. It enabled us to showcase our key skills as well as our deep understanding of statistical methods and data analysis. We are working on drafting the manuscript for our project and hope to turn it into a meaningful research paper.”
After graduation, Wu will work as a data scientist/consultant for Travelers Insurance.
Like all programs at UW, the MS Capstone faced challenges due to the pandemic, the most daunting of which was having to completely re-imagine the capstone projects as online experiences.
“The capstone project is the culminating experience of the program designed to provide an intensive collaboration between teams of students and outside sponsor organizations, including attending research meetings, and getting to know the sponsors by spending time working in their locations,” said Szpiro.
“Of course, all of this had to change because of COVID-19, but I was excited to see how resilient the students and sponsors were. The final products clearly demonstrated that the capstone projects were extremely successful.”
Szpiro notes that elements of the MS Capstone program yielded unexpected benefits for the entire department, such as the new Fundamentals of Public Health for Biostatistics (BIOST 504) course.
“Originally designed to deliver basic knowledge about public health to MS Capstone students, whose accelerated program does not leave time for many electives, the course is now taken by all graduate students in the department. It serves as a jumping off point to learn about a wide range of fascinating topics in real world public health practice and to give students an opportunity to focus on their collaboration and presentation skills.”
MS Capstone Graduate Program Advisor Minh Vo was hired after the move to remote work. She’s never met any students or faculty in person but, nevertheless, managed to develop a robust professional development program that proved valuable to capstone students as well PhD and MS Thesis students. The program included multiple career panels that featured alumni and other potential employers from small startups to first-class research institutions to marquee technology firms.
As students and faculty reflect back on the last 18 months, they note being part of a supportive community was an integral part of their experience.
“I have some mixed feelings about graduation. Firstly, because this long journey is over, I feel absolutely excited about graduating from the MS Capstone program and finishing my capstone project. On the other hand, I also have this feeling of loss since I am about to leave this wonderful department and say goodbye to my cohort,” said Ziyuan Wang, who will pursue a PhD in epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I’m very excited to be one of the first students to graduate from the MS Capstone program and I’m grateful for all the support from the graduate program. It is definitely a meaningful journey for me, where I got the chance to be part of a fantastic cohort and learn from excellent professors,” said Wu.
Szpiro agreed with his students. “The first graduating is cohort is just a wonderful and talented group of students. It was a real pleasure to get to know them over the last 18 months, and I was privileged to get to work with all of them on their capstone projects leading up to graduation, so I could see how much each of them learned and how well they came together as a community.”
Learn more about the MS Capstone program.
— Deb Nelson