Joe Cavanaugh: Telling the story of data

By Jennifer New

Published on June 21, 2016

Joe Cavanaugh
Joe Cavanaugh

If there is a thread that runs throughout public health, it may well be biostatistics. In this time of increasingly data-driven and evidence-based research, biostatisticians offer unique and vital skills as collaborators, analysts, and communicators.

Joe Cavanaugh, who was named head of the UI College of Public Health’s biostatistics department last December, says of the ubiquity of his field, “Our department interfaces with all of the others in the College of Public Health. In addition to working across our college, we also have collaborations with nursing, dentistry, and most departments in the College of Medicine.”

Cavanaugh’s personal array of current projects is indicative of the diverse work for many in biostatistics. He is a co-investigator on projects focused on hospital-acquired infections, teen bullying, youth-league football injuries, and prevention of tooth decay.

One collaborator, Corinne Peek-Asa, CPH associate dean for research and professor of occupational and environmental health, says that Cavanaugh is sought after as a team member because of his authentic interest in all aspects of a study, not just the numbers. At the same time, there are few people better at explaining data: “One of Joe’s many talents is his ability to explain very complex biostatistical principles to professionals in other fields, stakeholders, students, and any other audience in a really clear but not ‘dumbed-down’ way.”

Real-Life Research

It would have been easy for Cavanaugh to have dedicated his career to the outer reaches of statistical theory and formulae. A math and computer science undergraduate, he earned his PhD in statistics at the University of California at Davis before taking a faculty position in the statistics department at the University of Missouri. An opportunity to work with a trauma surgeon using big data systems to evaluate the efficacy of the trauma care system returned him to a call to work with more “real life problems.”

He joined the CPH faculty in 2003. A glance through the titles of Cavanaugh’s papers, proposals, and presentations since arriving reflects the shift in his career from the theoretical to the applied. Of his current work, Cavanaugh notes with a smile, “It is nice to be in a field in which you can clearly tell friends and family the relevance of your research. I’m able to point toward very practical outcomes of my work.”

An ardent Hawkeye sports fan, he was pleased to use his skills to ferret out the causes of a rhabdomyolysis outbreak among the University of Iowa football team in 2011. He contributed to a report submitted to then UI President Sally Mason and the Board of Regents, and co-authored a subsequent paper that provided lessons learned from the outbreak and procedures for averting future outbreaks.

Although a significant part of biostatisticians’ work is to provide statistical know-how on projects that originate with other health-related researchers, an equally vital part of the work is to further the methodology. Cavanaugh’s own areas of methodological research include statistical model selection and time series analysis.  

 Making Sense of Big Data

Cavanaugh attributes biostatistics’ vital—and arguably, growing—role in health-related research to the fastpaced evolution of computing and of data itself. So-called “big data” and informatics problems that involve massive state, federal, and international data sets, coupled with the hyper advancement of computing, make it nearly impossible for researchers outside of biostatistics to stay abreast of tools and methods. An oncologist, for instance, may be a very adept analyzer of data, but eventually, says Cavanaugh, he or she will hit a wall.

Peek-Asa notes that biostatisticians like Cavanaugh are also skilled at storytelling. “They have the expertise to tell the story of the data,” she says, “to make sure analyses are accurate, but also to use the best approaches to find and interpret what’s important within data.”

Cavanaugh has received multiple awards for his teaching, so it’s not surprising that he considers communication a vital skill for the field. “It’s really the one skill that predicts which students will have the greatest success,” he says.

In part, this comes back to the way in which biostatisticians must be able to communicate with epidemiologists, health policy makers, and many other collaborators. “You can’t go into technical jargon mode,” says Cavanaugh.  

Fine-Tuning for the Future

Among publicly supported schools offering graduate programs in biostatistics, the UI’s biostatistics department is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as number seven in the country. As department chair, Cavanaugh wants to continue to play to the strengths of Iowa’s program, particularly its size and diversity. There are about 40 graduate students in the department, most of whom receive full funding.

With demand far exceeding supply, the placement rate of these graduates is 100 percent, with grads capturing impressive jobs at research centers, such as the Mayo Clinic, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the UI’s Holden Cancer Research Center; at major pharmaceutical companies; and at universities.

While these are great success stories, Cavanaugh has plans to keep improving the program. One of his main goals as department chair is to update the PhD curriculum to reflect the field’s most current practices.

“In order to have a vibrant graduate program, you must stay abreast of what is current and keep fine-tuning the curriculum,” he says. As an example, he points to courses under development in advanced statistical computing and data visualization. “You can’t rest on your laurels.”

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of InSight

Photos by John Choate