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Susan Holmes: Statistics are reshaping our understanding of biology

A statistician discusses her discipline’s growing influence on biology and why she thinks the most important skill for the biostatistician may be communication, not analysis.

a mother holding her baby close to her face so that their noses almost touch

Statistics could reshape obstetrics. | Unsplash/Sharon McCutcheon

In recent years, biologists have learned that the vaginal microbiome — the make-up of the bacteria in the vagina — during pregnancy may be the best predictor of pre-term birth.

It is a valuable finding that could reshape obstetrics. What is perhaps more revelatory about this emerging knowledge is that biologists have learned it from a surprising source: statistics.

Stanford’s Susan Holmes is one such statistician in the rapidly evolving science of using statistics to understand biology. Holmes is now turning her attention to improving our understanding of the remarkable human immune system to help fight cancer and other deadly diseases. She says that the statistician’s greatest contribution to biology may not necessarily reside in analyzing the myriad numbers and data points available these days, but rather in divining and explaining which patterns are replicable and which are not.

Join bioengineering Professor Russ Altman for the latest episode of Stanford Engineering’s The Future of Everything podcast to discuss the fascinating and fast-evolving field of statistical biology with a leading proponent of the science, Susan Holmes. Listen here.