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Student Profiles

Julian Wolfson


Greetings from Seattle! The land of rain, Starbucks, and Microsoft is a great place to study... Biostatistics?! Yes, biostatistics, an area of statistics which is concerned with developing techniques and tools for analysing biological and medical data. Biostatisticians play a major role in the design and analysis of drug, vaccine, and public health intervention trials; they also devise new methods for dealing with biological data collected in experiments ranging from genetic sequencing to brain activity mapping.

I'm starting the third year of the PhD programme in the Department of Biostatistics at the University of Washington here in Seattle. My first two years consisted mainly of coursework (standard for many American PhD programs which accept students directly from undergrad), and I've begun the process of searching for a dissertation topic. My current research is concerned with HIV vaccines, in particular how to determine whether certain immune responses to vaccination can predict how well a vaccine will protect you from infection.

This path might seem an unorthodox choice for someone who graduated from McGill with a joint honours Bachelors' degree in Math and Computer Science, but the skills I acquired as an undergraduate have given me a "leg up" in the aspects of biostatistics many of my fellow students find most challenging: theoretical mathematics/statistics and programming. So, even if you're considering graduate studies in a relatively applied field, I would recommend getting as much theory as you can as early as possible: it's much easier to pick up a book and learn about the workings of the immune system than to do the same for functional analysis.

When I'm not biostatisticianing (or making up words), I often head down to the squash courts. During my first two years here, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to play for the University's intercollegiate squash team, which travelled to Philadelphia, Stanford, Berkeley, the Naval Academy in Annapolis (Maryland), Princeton, and Harvard to compete against other schools. If I'm not too exhausted from squash, I also enjoy cooking, and have developed a minor obsession with the episodes of America's Test Kitchen that my TiVo records for me.

My graduate studies have given me the chance to meet the foremost experts in the field along with highly motivated students who enjoy working on important practical problems, and my McGill undergraduate degree provided me with the tools and confidence needed to take full advantage of these opportunities.