Companies counting on GVSU
biostatistics program

November 17, 2008
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The numbers are small, but Grand Valley State University’s master’s program in biostatistics is filling a niche in the health and life sciences economy that is in growth mode in West Michigan.

“It’s essentially the application of statistical methods to biological and health sciences,” said GVSU Associate Professor Bob Downer, program director.

The two-year program, launched in 2006, awarded five master’s degrees in April. Each graduate found a job in Michigan, scattered among private industry, nonprofit health care and academia. A starting salary of $50,000 would be common, Downer said.

“Because of the program, I was able to hit the ground running here,” said Heather Houseman, of Dorr, who started working in June for a contractor providing services to Pfizer Animal Health in Kalamazoo. “I think they were pretty impressed with that. The degree prepared me well for that.”

This year, the program has 26 students, Downer said. About half are working professionals and the rest are full-time students.

Downer said GVSU gathered input from local and national industry to design the program.

“Because of the amount of biological data out there and the number of companies in ‘pharma,’ and a lot of emerging technologies with respect to genetic data — not just in places like Van Andel Research Institute here in Grand Rapids but, again, nationally — a graduate level program seemed to be fitting a need,” Downer said.

“Given that most of the jobs in applied statistics are in the biological sciences, and a master’s level degree is the minimum employers are looking for, the combination of the need, the data and the common degree employers are seeking led to the program being developed.”

The program is one of three in GVSU’s Professional Science master’s program. The other two are medical and bioinformatics, and cell and molecular biology. The cross-disciplinary curriculums share some classes, and require an internship rather than a thesis.

“That’s unique because you wouldn’t find that in all master’s in statistics programs,” Downer added.

Downer said biostatistics students have been placed in internships in the Annis Water Resources Institute, Kent County Health Department, MPI Research, Priority Health, QST Consultations Ltd., Spectrum Health and VARI.

Students interested in the program should have a related undergraduate degree or at least some experience in working with data, Downer added.

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