Transforming Data into Knowledge: RSU's New Biostatistics Programme Suits Medics, Mathematicians, and Biologists Alike
Biostatistics encompasses the analysis of data related to living beings and is a fast-growing field with an increasing demand for competitive professionals. The Biostatistics master's programme at Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU), which has been jointly established with colleagues from Sweden and Estonia, is aimed at training such professionals. The first two-year journey into the world of biostatistics starts in February 2023 and submissions to the programme will be accepted between 5 December to 19 January this year.
There is a 33% increase in demand for biostatisticians in the USA
Andrejs Ivanovs, the Director of the newly established programme, lists the range of potential employers for biostatisticians: research institutes, laboratories, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and public sector organisations working in the field of healthcare. Career opportunities are growing both in Latvia and abroad as the field is currently experiencing rapid growth. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the demand for biostatisticians in the US will grow by 33% between 2019 and 2029. Similar trends can also be seen in Europe and other regions of the world as we live in an era of data digitisation, says Ivanovs.
RSU was familiar with biodata analysis even before the programme was established. Medical and healthcare students at RSU learn statistics in courses and then put it to practice in their coursework by analysing data mainly related to living beings – humans, animals and bacteria. The University has also established the Statistics Unit. Headed by Ivanovs, the unit works with students and lecturers facilitating their research activities and participates in national and international research. Among the laboratory’s closest scientific cooperation partners are the University of Latvia, the University of Tartu, Uppsala University, the University of Gothenburg, and Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg.
Visiting professors from these universities will teach study whole or parts of courses in the new study programme, either in person or online. The two internationally recognised professionals in biostatistics most closely involved in the development of the programme are Krista Fischer, Associate Professor at the Estonian Genome Centre based at the University of Tartu and Professor of Mathematical Statistics at the Institute of Mathematics and Statistics, and Ziad Taib, Adjunct Professor in Biostatistics at Chalmers University of Technology. The programme has received co-financing from the European Union making it the only master’s study programme in applied or practically applicable biostatistics in the Baltics.
A wide range of backgrounds are relevant to the new programme
The programme is based on four pillars encompassing courses in statistics, medicine, research design, and in clinical trials. When asked what prior knowledge is required to apply for the programme, Ivanovs emphasises that the programme is deliberately designed to be open to professionals from a wide range of fields: from statisticians, biologists, public health specialists and medical doctors to psychologists, economists, and programmers whose work is increasingly linked to data analysis.
‘Someone with a bachelor’s degree in statistics naturally has an advantage when studying in this programme, but the contents are deliberately designed to suit students with different backgrounds. A statistician will start the programme without a prior understanding of anatomy, and a medical doctor without knowledge about probability theory. The first semester is therefore planned so as to even out the students' knowledge,’ says the director of the programme.
Academic staff from the RSU Institute of Anatomy and Anthropology, the Department of Infectology, and the Department of Internal Diseases will join their colleagues in levelling up students’ knowledge in compact study courses, so that they understand the basic medical information related to data that biostatisticians have to work with. The director of the programme has tried this out himself. Ivanovs explains that he started his research career in the field of infectious diseases and that a deeper understanding of human blood tests such as ALAT, ASAT, or GGT would have been very useful.
‘To handle biodata, a statistician needs to understand what is behind it, what it does to a person and what the changes indicate.’
Now that precision medicine is experiencing a leap in development, the amount and spectrum of biodata is also increasing, opening up a whole new field of research and insight for statisticians.
Applied statistics – as close to practice as possible
As is true for master's studies in general, it will be possible to combine the studies with work. The programme will be conducted in hybrid form with some of the study courses being held online, but most of them face-to-face. Courses such as Linear Models, Survival Analysis, Categorical Data Analysis, Clinical Trials, Repeated Measures and Longitudinal Data, and others will be taught by visiting lecturers from Estonia and Sweden.
Ivanovs knows the importance of links with research institutes and the industry from his own early work experience. The Biostatistics programme has therefore paid special attention to this and the contents of the programme are as close to real life as possible. The teaching staff also includes people who have spent decades in statistical practice, whether analysing and advising the government on epidemiological issues or conducting clinical trials for international companies such as AstraZeneca. When the programme was created, its developers approached a number of Latvian scientific institutions: the BIOR institute, the Latvian Biomedical Research and Study Centre, the RSU Institute of Occupational Safety and Environmental Health, and the RSU Institute of Microbiology and Virology. These research teams will provide future biostatisticians with both placement and the data needed for their master's thesis. This will allow the master’s students to become more experienced in the real world of work, which is the aim of the programme. ‘We won't delve into the theory, we won't analyse formulas, but we will be learning applied biostatistics - everything we need for immediate work in this field,’ concludes Ivanovs.
The study programme/s has been developed within project No 18.104.22.168/18/A/014 “Reducing study programme fragmentation and promoting study internationalisation at Rīga Stradiņš University”