Statisticians have taken to developing healthcare applications

Sangita Kulathinal, recently appointed professor of mathematics and statistics, believes that the large amounts of data processed in healthcare will keep statisticians busy in the future.

Sangita Kulathinal, a veteran of statistics and healthcare, began serving as a professor at the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Helsinki at the beginning of March 2019. Kulathinal specialises in statistical methods used in analysing extensive health record data.

For ordinary Finns, the impact of Kulathinal’s work may be apparent, for example, in increasingly efficient treatment methods or in the improved prevention of diseases.

“Right now, the hottest applications in statistics are specifically linked to healthcare. With extensive health records available, statistical methods can be used to look for  evidence, for example effective and ineffective treatment methods,” Kulathinal explains.

In Finland, datasets suitable for such statistical observations are already available, while new datasets are constantly being compiled. For example, Kulathinal’s previous employer, the National Institute for Health and Welfare, has already conducted population surveys and collected extensive health records and survey data for decades.

“The number and scope of such large datasets will only increase. In fact, I’m convinced that we statisticians will have our hands full in the future,” she notes.

Statisticians must not limit themselves to statistics

Kulathinal, originally from India, has lived in Finland for over 20 years. She originally came to Finland in the 1990s to work as a postdoctoral researcher at the Rolf Nevanlinna Institute under the auspices of the University of Helsinki.

Later, she was recruited by the National Public Health Institute, the predecessor of the National Institute for Health and Welfare. Kulathinal’s first position was in a project focused on cardiovascular diseases, investigating the impact of genes and risk factors, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, on the onset of disease.

“Before this project, I was almost afraid of genetics. It was not my field at all. However, I took to studying the subject by myself. You see, good statistical methods cannot be developed without knowledge of the field in question,” Kulathinal points out.

In addition to the National Institute for Health and Welfare, Kulathinal’s previous employers include the University of Tampere.

Aiming to make students rise above the teacher

After spending her time in research institutes, Kulathinal wanted to return to the University to better focus on her two passions: statistics and teaching.

She aims to carry on with her statistical research relating to health. Next, she will focus, through statistics, on gut microbes and how bacteria affect our overall health.

“I have to study a little more biology,” she laughs.

In future, she may also start applying statistics to economics and other fields unfamiliar to her.

As a teacher, she wishes to strengthen the statistics course selection of the University of Helsinki and to educate skilled experts who are able to put problems originating in other fields of science into the framework of statistics.

“By teaching, I give back to a society that has given me so much. The best thanks a teacher can get is to see one’s own students become better than oneself in what one teaches. That’s my goal,” Kulathinal says.

First lady

Kulathinal is the first female professor at the Department of Mathematics and Statistics of the University of Helsinki.

“Being a pioneer in this area was a surprise, as we are, after all, in Finland. To be the first woman in this position, I think it has something quite solemn about it,” Kulathinal laughs.