In July, Qin Liu began her tenure as an associate professor of biostatistics at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She explains how she has combined a medical degree with graduate research in epidemiology and biostatistics to focus on cancer research.
You set out to be a clinical doctor. What sparked your interest in biostatistics?
I expected to become a clinical doctor when I completed my MD at Shanxi Medical University in Taiyuan, China. I got a job offer at a hospital in Changzhi, my parents' current residence. Then, during the last year of medical school, I did an internship at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Shanxi Province. I wanted to use population-based data to get useful public-health information. I thought I would do a graduate programme in epidemiology, but the principal investigator wanted a man. He felt it wasn't safe for a woman to travel alone collecting data in the countryside. Biostatistics was similar, without the travel, and a good fit. I did a survival analysis of people with lung cancer.
How did you end up in the United States?
After completing my PhD at Shanghai Medical University and working there as a lecturer, I was chosen, from 30 applicants, for the one opening in a biostatistics postdoctoral training programme at the Cancer Center of the University of Massachusetts (UMass) in Worcester.
What was a pivotal point in your early research?
I found that women who get pregnant have an increased risk of developing breast cancer for several years after pregnancy — but later in life, their risk decreases. My team and I interpreted this as evidence that the risk might be associated with hormonal changes. That was a big paper for me. Several years later, using a similar statistical model applied to the same Swedish population data, we found the opposite trend for ovarian cancer. We need more data to understand this phenomenon.
Why did you then pursue a master's degree in epidemiology?
My mentor was an epidemiologist, and I felt that I needed more knowledge for population-based studies. At the time, UMass employees got a 50% reimbursement for work-related degrees, so I thought, 'Why not?' I was also curious as to how US university teachers teach.
What are the biggest differences between Chinese and US teachers?
In China, teachers seldom ask students' opinions or discuss topics with them. When I taught, I talked for the entire 45 minutes of class. But here, they use half their time to lead a discussion and ask students questions. It makes the students feel active. I was nervous at first as a student, because my English was not good and I couldn't organize my thoughts to reply. But I learned to focus my energy to be ready when the teacher called on me.
Do you think you will eventually return to China?
Several people have contacted me, and I know there is a lot of funding from the Chinese government to attract good researchers back to help develop public-health projects. But so far, I haven't thought about going back.
How have funding ups and downs affected your career?
I worked at the cancer centre at UMass for seven years, until our funding ran out. Almost everyone in our group had to look for another position. It was very hard. This is a challenge in our field: there are few independent granting sources, so biostatisticians have to either collaborate with other people to analyse their data or work in a group that provides statistical services to faculty members.
I was lucky that the UMass Biostatistical Research Group, which provides statistical services to the entire department of medicine, had an opening and chose me. I worked with all different types of researchers, conducting everything from clinical to policy studies. But I realized I really wanted to return to cancer research when I saw this opportunity in the oncogenesis programme at Wistar. Luckily, the hiring committee saw me as a potential bridge between the basic science and the clinical research being done there. I hope the position will afford me more research independence.