Q&A: Graduating student Melissa Jay on research, teamwork, and what’s ahead

Published on April 26, 2022

Melissa Jay is set to graduate in May 2022 with a PhD in biostatistics. She successfully passed her dissertation defense in early April and will soon start a new position as an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She recently answered a few questions about her research, teamwork, and time at Iowa.

How did you discover the field of biostatistics, and why did it catch your interest?

I really enjoyed my statistics coursework as an undergraduate at Colorado College and knew that I wanted to use statistics to benefit society in some way. I also grew up in a family of medical professionals, and while I was interested in health care, I could never see myself in a clinical role. Participating in the Iowa Summer Institute in Biostatistics (ISIB) at the University of Iowa College of Public Health as an undergraduate opened my eyes to a career that I didn’t even know existed: I could apply my interest in statistics to help advance health research! After ISIB, I knew that I wanted to be a biostatistician.

Melissa Jay

Can you briefly describe your research and how it can be used in public health?

My research focuses on developing new statistical methods for modeling and explaining cancer risk at the ZIP code level. It can be challenging to obtain a reliable map of cancer risk at the ZIP code level when there are small population sizes and many zeros in the dataset (which can occur when there are many rural ZIP codes in your dataset). I proposed a method to better estimate cancer age-adjusted rates with these types of datasets. I also developed statistical methods that can be used to understand why cancer age-adjusted rates differ by ZIP code-level socioeconomic status, rurality, or another characteristic of interest. My methods can be used in many public health applications to understand the spatial distribution of different diseases.

In addition to your teaching and research activities, you’ve been involved in student organizations and leadership roles. Why do you think it’s important for students to get involved and take advantage of these opportunities?

Being involved in our department’s Biostatistics Student Organization (BSO) and other leadership roles in the college has been an enjoyable part of my graduate school experience. I think these experiences are important for developing skills that may be less emphasized in coursework or research. As president of BSO during our primarily virtual academic year (2020-2021), I learned to be more adaptable and improved my professional communication skills.

I also think being involved in student organizations is a great way to get know students across the department or college. Having a strong community and support system was so beneficial for me as I pursued my PhD, and I enjoyed getting to know more students across cohorts through BSO.

Your education and research experiences have taken you to many places, including Boston, Colorado, California, Iowa, and Hong Kong. You also completed an Engaging Across Cultures Certificate at Iowa. What do you enjoy and value about traveling to different places and working with people from diverse backgrounds?

Throughout my travels and research experiences, I have been fortunate to work with people from diverse backgrounds and learn more about different cultures. One of my favorite parts of the research process is working with a team and bouncing ideas off one another when conceptualizing the study or method. This aspect of research excites me because the unique perspectives, ideas, and expertise that each team member brings leads to better research than each of us could produce individually.

Living in new places and working with people from different backgrounds has been a rewarding experience both in terms of the high-quality research we are able to do together and the lasting friendships that I have made. I always look forward to crossing paths with friends from these experiences at conferences or grabbing a meal together when we are in the same city.

After graduation, you’ll be starting a new position as an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Public Health. What are you most looking forward to?

So many things! If I had to choose two, I would say that I am excited to form new collaborative relationships with researchers across campus and to mentor students. UAB has so much exciting medical and public health research happening, and I look forward to being part of a variety of interdisciplinary teams. I also recognize that there will be so much learning to do both when getting started and throughout my career and am eager to learn more about different health disciplines from my collaborators. In addition, I look forward to mentoring and teaching biostatistics graduate students and helping them work towards their career goals.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I feel very lucky to have pursued my PhD at Iowa. If you are looking for a department with exciting research opportunities, quality teaching, and a very collaborative culture, Iowa Biostat is a great place to be!