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Profiles of AWIS Members in Statistics: Elizabeth Schifano, PhD

Anyone who knows my parents would say my future was inevitable.  As my mother and father were both gifted mathematics educators, I was exposed at a very early age to the beauty of mathematics as well as the joys of teaching.  There was never a doubt in my mind that women were as talented in the sciences as men, and I was encouraged by my teachers and parents to pursue these subjects where I had shown interest and aptitude.  During high school, in addition to my continued proclivity towards math, I independently became intrigued by topics in biology, particularly human genetics.  However, it was not apparent to me that I would take the path toward academia and statistics until early in my college studies.    

Once at Cornell, I discovered that I could cultivate both my biological and mathematical interests within one major, Biometry and Statistics.   I pursued this course of study, but it wasn’t until the summer before my senior year that I realized I wanted to continue my education and pursue a Ph.D. in Statistics.  The defining experience was my Biostatistics internship at Johns Hopkins Medical Institute in Baltimore, MD.  During that summer internship I had the privilege of working and interacting with Ph.D. level statisticians and biostatisticians whose primary goals were to develop statistical methods and tools for analyzing data from the latest high-throughput genomic technology.  It was fascinating for me to realize that clinicians and physicians were relying on these statisticians to make sense out of what was potentially clinically relevant.  I knew I wanted to be part of this exciting and meaningful work.

Once enrolled in graduate school, further summer internships as a Biostatistician at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY reaffirmed my desire to create new, statistically sound ways of analyzing data to better understand human health and disease.  Graduate school also afforded me my first opportunities as an instructor.  I discovered for myself what my parents referred to as the intangible rewards of teaching and knew that this was also something I was truly meant to do.  How fortunate for me that in my current position as an Assistant Professor in Statistics, I am able combine my passion for statistical research with my love of teaching.  

Career Advice from Dr. Schifano:

In my opinion, there is no better way to hone the necessary applied skills than through an internship, provided one has already developed a substantive area of interest (e.g., economics, sociology, psychology, biology, genomics).   I think this advice holds equally for both entry-level and Ph.D.-bound statisticians, hoping to enter either industry or academia.  An internship not only provides a taste of what one might expect from the profession, but it also provides experience with real data and common practices in the field.  Perhaps most importantly, internships additionally provide opportunities to network.  Specifically for statisticians wishing to pursue advanced degrees, I would highly recommend finding a mentor/advisor whom you respect and trust, and who you know will be your advocate.  I can say with confidence that I would not be where I am today without the experiences I gained in my internships and the guidance I received from my mentors.   

Dr. Elizabeth Schifano began her current position as an Assistant Professor of Statistics at the University of Connecticut in the Fall of 2012.  She earned her Ph.D. in Statistics from Cornell University in 2010 under the advisement of Dr. Robert Strawderman, and completed her postdoctoral work at the Harvard School of Public Health in Biostatistics in 2012 under the mentorship of Dr. Xihong Lin.  Motivated by high-dimensional genomic data, Dr. Schifano’s research continues to focus on the development of statistical methods for variable selection via penalized regression models and powerful model-based inference.   Her work in these areas has been published in several peer-reviewed journals, including the Electronic Journal of Statistics, Statistical Science, Genetic Epidemiology, Statistical Modelling, and Statistical Applications in Genetics and Molecular Biology.  In addition to research, Dr. Schifano also teaches graduate level courses within the Department of Statistics and provides statistical support to members of the university’s Center for Health, Intervention, and Prevention.


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