Statistician Stephanie Hicks ’13 says the thing she likes most about her job is the immediate gratification that comes from seeing the impact of her work.
“I am highly motivated by solving real-world problems using applied statistics and data science,” she said.
Now an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, Hicks’ research focuses on developing statistical methods to analyze genomics data. She was marked as a rising star in this field, receiving a prestigious K99/R00 grant in 2016 from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) for her postdoctoral work addressing statistical challenges in analyzing genomics data from individual cells.
“It’s an honor to be awarded such a grant,” she said. “It’s also life-changing, in the sense that when you go on the job market with this grant in your pocket, you are highly competitive as a candidate.”
Most recently, Hicks became involved in one of the 85 one-year projects awarded by the newly formed Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). A total of $15 million was distributed to researchers.
CZI was launched in 2015 by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician and CEO Priscilla Chan. The mission is to support science and technology that will make it possible to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century. In 2016, the initiative partnered with Human Cell Atlas (HCA), a global collaboration that will give scientists a better understanding of how cells work and the effects of disease on individual cells.
The award Hicks is a part of is called the Collaborative Computational Tools for the HCA. The goal?
“Create a comprehensive map of all cells in the human body to better understand human health and disease,” Hicks said. “This means that there is going to be a lot of data generated from this project, from various labs all across the world. But more importantly, this award will provide funding to develop open-access algorithms and tools to analyze and to visualize data from the HCA.”
Last summer, CZI solicited applications from scientists eager to tackle the mapping project. Hicks and her colleagues were quick to put in an application to build upon an open-source software project, called Bioconductor, the pre-eminent resource for the analysis and visualization of genomics data using the R programming language. With other Bioconductor developers, Hicks will create the infrastructure and tools needed to analyze potentially billions of single cells in the HCA within Bioconductor.
“It’s extremely exciting to work with researchers funded by the CZI,” she said. “These are the top researchers across the world working on computational tools to analyze genomics data at the single cell level, which means there are many different ideas, perspectives and programming languages being used. However, these awards from the CZI are allowing researchers to make connections and bridge gaps that we normally would not be able to.”
Hicks said she chose Rice due in large part to the proximity of the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world and one of Rice’s closest neighbors.
“My experience at Rice was wonderful, and the access to the medical center was hugely beneficial,” she said. “I worked with many different faculty members, and had the opportunity to work in a wet lab as part of a T32 graduate training grant.”
“I developed an appreciation for how difficult it is to generate data in a wet lab,” she said. “That’s something that statistics students in general never see. It’s typical for a statistics student to start with data in a table or matrix format. In addition to the theoretical knowledge, the training grant gave me a new perspective and deep appreciation for the data generation process.”
“It’s important in anyone’s career to identify people who can not only mentor you, but more importantly, actively advocate for you,” she said. “Someone who is willing to write a stellar recommendation letter, to promote and praise your work, and to nominate you for awards. Someone who will email a colleague and say, ‘This is a great candidate, I think you should consider them for the job.’ ”
Her advice for prospective students is to marry passion and ability.
“Find problems that interest you, and then pursue the field that allows you to solve those problems,” she said. “For example, biology never ceases to amaze me and it is filled with open-ended questions. I leverage my statistical and computational training to solve some of those problems.”