Department History

The Department of Biomedical Data Science (DBDS) opened on October 1, 2015. It is the first Stanford department to be built from the group up since 2003 and it is key to pursuing the School of Medicine's mission of Precision Health. DBDS will be built by coalescing Stanford experts in biostatistics and bioinformatics into this new department, while simultaneously recruiting new members to the faculty.

As such, Stanford's Biostatistics Division (with its Ph.D. degree program, biostats workshop program, and Data Coordinating Center) has already been fully integrated into the new Department. What follows is the history of the Biostats Division and a message from its staff and faculty members. 

History of Stanford Biostatistics

Scientific work in biostatistics at Stanford began even before the School of Medicine moved to Palo Alto in 1959 in the person of (the late) Lincoln Moses, whose appointment was split between Community Medicine and the Department of Statistics in the School of Humanities and Sciences. Shortly after, Biostatistics became a Division of what was the Department of Community Medicine. Lincoln was joined soon by then recent Stanford Ph.D., the late Rupert G. Miller, Jr. He became Division Chief and also had an appointment split between the School of Medicine and the Department of Statistics. They were joined by the late Byron Wm. (Bill) Brown, Jr. in 1968. He was entirely in the School of Medicine until his formal retirement in 1998; Brown was recalled to active duty until his death in late 2004. The faculty was completed for a period of years when it was joined by Bradley Efron, again with a joint appointment. We note that Efron was awarded a National Medal of Science for 2005.

From the beginning, biostatistics at Stanford has been involved in the research activities of every clinical division in the School; many basic science department, too; in the Schools of Education, Humanities and Sciences; and Law; and in many national efforts that involved biostatistics. These included but were not limited to the celebrated National Halothane Study in the 1960s, as well as the pioneering research of Kaplan, Rosenberg, Levy and colleagues, first regarding the treatment of Hodgkin’s disease and later that of non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas. As well, biostatistics was central to the development at Stanford of its celebrated efforts regarding heart transplantation, to the beginning and evolution of the Stanford Cancer Institute, the Stanford Prevention Research Center, in all manner of research in pharmacology, and in much else.  There has always been a strong interplay here between practical matters and collaboration with biomedical colleagues on the one hand, and the development of cutting edge methodological work in statistics on the other. Examples include but are far from limited to innovations in survival analysis, the development of biased coin designs for clinical trials; the adaptive design of clinical trials; sample reuse methods; and approaches to data mining, especially as it bears upon computer-aided diagnosis and prognosis, in cardiology, cancer, and transplantation. Among current biostatisticians at Stanford are the originator of the famous bootstrap technique for making inferences about the parameters of models and prediction when doing so mathematical is not really possible, and one of the four developers of popular CART methodology for classification and regression, now including survival analysis and clustering. Famous newspapers have editorialized that driving with cell phones is being similar to driving drunk; one of two originators of this famous work is a biostatistician at Stanford. Faculty in biostatistics also include world authorities in analyzing longitudinal data with wavelets, and experts, too, on generalized additive models. One biostatistician at Stanford is coauthor of a significant part of the R package, which in various forms is among the most widely used statistical software in the world. Members of faculty in biostatistics have worked on algorithms for analyzing gene expression profiles and cis-regulatory sequences; many aspects of image compression and enhancement, especially in CT, MR, and mammography; and on studies of the cost-effectiveness of medical screening and interventions.

To return to the historical development, in 1988 the Division of Biostatistics became one of three divisions of the new Department of Health Research and Policy, the other two being Epidemiology and Health Services Research. Bill Brown was founding Chair of that department and also Division Chief. Sadly, by that time Rupert Miller, superb scientist, statistician, mathematician, and raconteur, had died. His position was taken in 1989 by Iain Johnstone, who was already tenured at Stanford in the Department of Statistics. He is an international leader in his own right. Richard Olshen returned to Stanford from the University of California, San Diego in 1989. Trevor Hastie also returned, from Bell Laboratories, as Associate Professor of Statistics and Biostatistics in 1994. Professor of Biostatistics and of Statistics Robert (Rob) Tibshirani returned from the University of Toronto in 1998. Wing Wong joined the Division from Harvard in 2004, and Professor Philip Lavori joined in 2005. Wong is Professor of Statistics and of Biomedical Data Science, and (by courtesy) of Biology. He and many others are important members of Stanford’s Bio-X. Wong has a lab in its Clark Center. Professor Lavori is Vice-Chair of the new Department of Biomedical Data Science. Prior to assuming this role he was Chair of the Department of Health Research and Policy, and also has been in charge of clinical trials and field studies at the Veterans Administration Hospitals in Palo Alto and Menlo Park. In 2006 the then existing Division of Biostatistics was joined by two individuals who received Ph.D. degrees from the Department of Statistics: Marc Coram and Mei-Chiung Shih. Dr. Coram had been at the University of Chicago; he left Stanford for the private sector at the end of 2014. Dr. Shih was in Biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health and at Boston Children’s Hospital. Now she is Associate Director of the Palo Alto CSP Coordinating Center of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, where she is involved in the design and implementation of multi-center clinical trials. In 2008 the Division of Biostatistics was joined by Lu Tian, Harvard Sc.D. Tian, whose interests include many matters concerning immunology, plus methodology for survival analysis and causal inference, was awarded tenure in 2013.

Now what was the Division of Biostatistics is part of a new exciting enterprise, the Department of Biomedical Data Science, headed by Professor Carlos Bustamante. As was stated, Lavori is Vice-Chair. No matter the venue, we are proud that biostatistics at Stanford has fared so well in reviews external to Stanford. The American Council on Education ratings by various criteria over a period of years have judged Stanford never worse than second in Statistics and Biostatistics, and in many comparisons, we are first. Brown and Moses were elected members of what then was the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Professor Alice Whittemore, who is in the Division of Epidemiology of Health Research and Policy but who is also in the Department of Biomedical Data Science is an elected member of what now is the National Academy of Medicine. Efron, Johnstone, Tibshirani, and Wong are elected members of the National Academy of Sciences. Efron and Johnstone are also members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as was Moses. Efron has been a MacArthur Prize Fellow and was, as was mentioned, awarded a National Medal of Science for 2005. Johnstone, Tibshirani, and Wong have won the COPSS Award from the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies as, in their respective e years, the best statisticians not more forty years of age anywhere in the world. Tibshirani is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Johnstone, Olshen, and Tibshirani have been Guggenheim Fellows, and Olshen the recipient of a Research Scholar in Cancer Award from the American Cancer Society. Hastie and Tibshirani are authors of a widely used text on additive models and coauthors of two recent important books on statistical learning, which are complemented by Hastie’s authorship of important statistical software. As well, Efron and Tibshirani have written the fundamental book on the bootstrap; Olshen and others coauthored the basic monograph on classification and regression trees.

We in biostatistics at Stanford expect to participate with colleagues in the School of Medicine and beyond in the wonderful growth of biomedical science in the near and long term. This involves but is far from limited to new ways of studying “big data.” We have always tried to meet the highest standards of performance in research, teaching and service. The latter is given evidence to, for example, by Efron, Johnstone, and Moses having been Deans, and Efron the head of the University’s most senior professorial committee, the Advisory Board. Efron and Johnstone have been President of The Institute of Mathematical Statistics, and Efron the President of the American Statistical Association. With luck and continuing hard work we will build from strength toward a productive future.