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Lori Chibnik: Applying Statistics to Public Health

posted Jul 8, 2010, 8:23 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 8:25 PM by AWM Editor ]

2006 AWM Essay Contest: 
College Honorable Mention

by Miranda Fix

Lori Chibnik never slows down. She was once in a study for which she was required to wear a pedometer for a week, and despite a major thunderstorm that kept her inside for a day, Lori accumulated so many more steps than anyone else that she was considered an outlier. I first met Lori, and noticed her aptitude for walking far and fast, at Boston University's Summer Institute for Training in Biostatistics (SIBS), where she took on multiple roles as program organizer, camp counselor, and liaison between students and faculty. During the school year, Lori also juggles several jobswhile working on her PhD thesis, she also works with researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and teaches introductory Statistics at Boston University.

The youngest of four children, Lori grew up with strong ties to family. The people who had the greatest influence on her were her mother and maternal grandparents. She lost her mom to cancer when she was in high school. They were very close. Her Zadie and Bubbi immigrated from Poland/Belarus and Hungary/Slovakia respectively, and met in Chicago. Her grandparents escaped the Nazis, but many of their aunts, uncles, and cousins did not. Lori attended Hebrew school from  kindergarten through high school. As with most Jews of her generation, she was taught to have pride in her culture, and to "Never Forget.

From the passion with which she approaches her career, one would never guess at the circuitous path that brought her to it. Lori was a first-generation college student. She always liked math and took AP Calculus in high school, but in her freshman year of college she found herself one of only three females in a Calculus 3 class of more than one hundred students. Because of this experience, she went into science instead, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a BS degree in Kinesiology. After two years working as an Aquatics Director at a Jewish community center in Illinois, Lori joined the Peace Corps because she wanted to have a positive influence on people. So from May 1997 to September 1999, she volunteered in the Republic of Moldova, a formerly Soviet country between Romania and Ukraine. Her primary assignment was to teach health education to junior high, high school, and college students, which sparked her interest in public health on a community level. With another Peace Corps volunteer, Lori also started Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), a week-long summer camp for girls. One of the things they taught the girls was self-defense, and at the end of the camp, one of the girls told Lori, "Thank you, I didn't know you could defend yourself." Lori cherishes this memory and maintains that joining the Peace Corps was, and still is, the best decision she has ever made.

Back in the States after her rewarding experience in Moldova, Lori pursued graduate study in Epidemiology at Boston University. She soon realized, however, that she preferred the biostatistics part of the program, and got her MPH in Biostatistics and International Health. She worked as a project manager for a year, and once she got her hands on real data she knew that she wanted to continue on, and joined the PhD program at Boston University. Now she is working on predictive accuracy markers in logistic data. Predictive accuracy measures include True Positive Rates and False Positive Rates, which can be applied to pre-natal testing for Downs Syndrome, for example. At Brigham and Women's Hospital, Lori works in the department of Rheumatology, where she does everything from writing grants to doing statistical analysis and writing papers. She has gotten three papers published so far this year, and another three are in the works.

A crucial part of any biostatistician's job is working with different types of people. At the Hospital, Lori works with MDs, PhDs, MPHs, students, and research assistants, who each specialize in different areas of medicine and approach problems from different perspectives. This is a great opportunity to learn something different every day, and Lori loves it. She also loves teaching Statistics 1, which she calls "Statistics for people who hate math," to university students. According to Lori, statistics "isn't about equations and plugging in numbers. It's about trying to understand what the numbers are telling you." Her goal in teaching is to get her students to look at the world in a more skeptical way. Instead of believing everything in the news, for example, she wants them to look at the studies and form their own opinions.

Lori is not afraid of having her own opinion, and expressing it too. She is one of the most outspoken and intelligent women I have ever met, and she has a genuine desire to make the world a healthier place through her work as a biostatistician. During the SIBS program last summer, we watched "And the Band Played On," a truly inspiring movie about the discovery of the AIDS epidemic. In the discussion that followed, Lori's passion for teaching and public health issues shone through. I feel lucky to have met a woman such as Lori, who both loves and believes in what she does for a living. She has walked a long way, and she is not slowing down anytime soon.

About the Student:
I am a math major at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Coincidentally, I first got interested in mathematics by reading a book of biographies of modern mathematicians, some of them women, who have remained among my role models. Last summer I attended the Summer Institute for Training in Biostatistics at Boston University and met many amazing professionals in the field. I am very interested in the intersection between math and biology, and plan to go to graduate school in applied math. In my spare time, I enjoy participating in environmentalism on campus, playing the erhu, and learning to play Go.