Biostatistics: large amounts of information in a digestible format

Most people do not understand that molecular medicine processes equally large amounts of data as particle physics. Therefore, immense data processing capacity is required, as well as those who are capable of processing and interpreting the data, says Juni Palmgren, Professor in Biostatistics.

Juni Palmgren

When Juni Palmgren started her mathematics and statistics studies at the University of Helsinki at the age of 18, she did not foresee that she would eventually carry out medical research. However, the path became clear when she was preparing her thesis.

– I wanted to apply my methodological competence in a new way, and I found medicine interesting. So in 1985, I joined the SETTI project, which was researching the prevention of cancer. I worked on the project as a biostatistician for ten years. The project dealt with a huge amount of research data, and competence in biostatistics was certainly needed.

Working for a 18 months in the United States reinforced Palmgren's idea of medical research being in urgent need of experts in biostatistics.

– I think that the only way to provide experts in this field is to establish research teams where mathematicians and statisticians may carry out dissertations in their own field, while contributing to medical research.

Palmgren was already launching such a research team in Finland when she was appointed as a Professor in Biostatistics at the University of Stockholm in 1997. A year later, she was also appointed as as a visiting professor at the Karolinska Institute. There she has implemented her vision of a research team providing experts in biostatistics:

– Researchers and students with a degree in mathematics or statistics come from all around the world to the biostatistics team at the Karolinska Institute. They share an interest in biomedicine, and at the Institute, they can apply their methodological competence and develop new statistical methods and tools.

Palmgren points out that the competence of biostatisticians is always needed from the research planning stage to the analysis of the final results.

– They are not assistants who drop in to do their tricks when requested, but are involved as researchers throughout the process.

At the beginning of 2011, Palmgren will start her four-year period as a FiDiPro professor at the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) of the University of Helsinki. The appointment further reinforces the cooperation between the Karolinska Institute and the FIMM.

– The data and competence of the FIMM and the Karolinska Institutet supplement each other in a brilliant way, and I hope that we also can somehow involve the Department of Mathematics and Statistics of the University of Helsinki in the cooperation, says Palmgren.

– I'm kind of going full circle here as I return to the university where I started my career.

Text: Päivi Lehtinen
Photo: FIMM / Gary Wornell

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