Mentoring in biostatistics: An interview with Professor Lehana Thabane

Features

  • Author: Joanna Carpenter
  • Date: 11 Dec 2013
  • Copyright: First image appears courtesy of iStock Photo. Second image appears courtesy of Professor Thabane.

Professor Lehana Thabane is Professor of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics and Director of the Biostatistics Unit, Centre for Evaluation of Medicine, McMaster University, Canada. He was born and raised in Lesotho, where he earned his undergraduate degree. He has also trained in the UK and Canada. He is a passionate advocate for mentoring as a way for experienced biostatisticians to pass on professional skills to students and new graduates.

thumbnail image: Mentoring in biostatistics: An interview with Professor Lehana Thabane

1. How did you begin to be interested in mentoring?

There’s a lot of deficiencies in our training systems. You may not feel it readily when you are going through training yourself but when you start practising, that’s when you begin to realize that we could do a better job.

I’ve been trained in three continents, and I really find the training of statisticians in those three continents is the same. We have the same deficiencies and the same challenges.

2. What is mentoring?

In particular, if you look at a lot of programmes, you find that they have supervision for graduate students, but supervision and mentorship are different. Not that they are mutually exclusive, but their goals may be slightly different. In supervision, the primary goal is to get the trainee or student through the programme requirements and to graduate on time, while mentorship is really trying to equip them and help them to be able to be a successful practising statistician or professional.

The mentor is there to protect the mentee and guide them in the right direction if they need information or some other additional knowledge that they need to be able to work effectively.

Even when you go through the literature, there is a lot about how to train biostatisticians to be successful going through your programme but not really in how to be successful working with others, and a lot of people then need to learn this through trial and error. My goal was really to minimize people having to learn through trial and error.

Professor Lehana Thabane

3. How did you go about changing things?

I started trying to share some of the principles and ideas I apply in training my own students. Essentially, I tell my students my job is not to supervise you but to mentor you to be a successful practitioner statistician.

Mentoring has to be a deliberate programme at all levels of the system. When we train students, even when we employ people, there needs to be a programme to help them to be able to navigate the systems so they don’t waste their time and energy.

As part of our programme at McMaster University we’ve developed a course that we call a biostatistical collaboration course, primarily to help people acquire the necessary professional skills in addition to the technical skills that they gain. We prepare them to be effective almost immediately once they get into the workforce.

Mentorship is a crucial part of the course. We assign every student a mentor who meets the student for at least an hour a week. They make sure the student gains experience of collaboration with non-statisticians, for instance, advising a non-statistician on clarifying the research question, interpreting results, and
explaining statistical issues to non-statisticians.

We talk about the principles of how to work with others to solve health problems, things such as how to manage time effectively, work in a team setting, manage stress in a team setting, deal with conflict and many other skills that are essential to be effective as a collaborator.

I would say that every single one of our students gets a job before they finish. Employers give us feedback and they say “We’ve never seen graduates like this from any programme. These are the best candidates we’ve ever interviewed. They understand practice. They are coming in with a lot of technical knowledge and they understand how to apply that knowledge in practice.|

That’s because we make that part of the training. It gives me hope that we must be doing something right.

4. Is there something distinctive about biostatistics that young biostatisticians benefit from mentoring to acquire those soft skills?

I wrote about mentoring mostly in biostatistics because I am a biostatistician by training. But in fact, it is not a new idea. If you look at engineering, law and medicine, they actually use mentorship and apprenticeship models as the way to train people, but we haven’t actually adopted those good principles or practices in biostatistics or training of statisticians in general.

Mentorship is a crucial part of the course. We assign every student a mentor who meets the student for at least an hour a week. They make sure the student gains experience of collaboration with non-statisticians, for instance, advising a non-statistician on clarifying the research question, interpreting results, and
explaining statistical issues to non-statisticians.

5. Have you noticed that things are changing at all for the better?

I would say we are beginning to see a change in attitude. I think people knew maybe the way to bring somebody on when they start work is mentoring but they didn’t think they could actually incorporate this in how they train them. So I think now they see that it is possible to do that. I see organisations such as the American Statistical Association creating a forum for discussions about mentorship and how to facilitate and reward that. And then we have some professional designations such as Chartered Statistician in the UK and Canada and mentorship as part of those.

Also, even within my own institution, people are seeing what we are doing in biostatistics and they are seriously trying to adopt the same principles in other disciplines. Believe it or not, when people see best practice and they see the successes and the fruit, they adopt those principles.

6. What changes are you proudest of?

I would say the first thing that I am very happy about is renewed discussions about this issue, and that people are beginning to realize its importance. I have had several invitations to give talks about this, and so I see that many institutions and many associations are beginning to realize that they have a role to play in how to enhance the training of statisticians and biostatisticians in general, and they are willing to look at some of the ideas that we’ve applied to see how they can actually implement them in their own setting.

The second thing is young statisticians are now being proactive. Instead of waiting for someone to come along and say `I will support you’ they are now looking out for support. I would say probably in a year I get between 5 and 20 emails from individuals looking for me to support them as a mentor.

I say to students “Don’t wait for someone to come along and help you, you should be on the lookout for someone to help you. And all you have to do is ask. Most people are really willing to help but you have to ask.” The worst that can happen is that somebody says “I’m too busy. I can’t help you” or just ignores your email. But in most cases I find most people are willing to share their lessons, the lessons they’ve learnt in life, their experiences, and to take young people under their wing and to help them.

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