ASA/TSHS - Teaching of Statistics in the Health Sciences: History

(by Constantine Daskalakis and Bob Oster)

Teaching of Statistics in the Health Sciences was first established as a subsection of the Section on Statistical Education in 1970, and its early history between 1970 and 1990 was traced by Beth Dawson-Saunders, Paul Jones, and Steven Verhulst in a 1990 article in The American Statistician (“The History of the Subsection on Teaching of Statistics in the Health Sciences”, The American Statistician, 1990, 44(2):101-103).

TSHS eventually became an independent section in 1991. Those were the days of no cell phones, no messaging, no internet connectivity. Email was a new thing even in academic environments, and commercial email was in its infancy (MCI Mail and Compuserve appeared in the late 1980s, and America Online in the early 1990s).

The section started with about 500 paying members but initially struggled to gain traction. In those early years, the section's newsletter was painstakingly published on paper by Steven Verhulst and mailed to members (check out scanned old newsletter issues under News/Newsletters—they do show their age!). Yet, interactions among section members were difficult and section activities very limited. There were years when the section had difficulty fielding any JSM sessions or even individual presentations, and consequently faced the danger of losing its independent status.

In the mid-1990s, however, a number of dedicated colleagues became involved and shaped the section’s trajectory in the years to come. With the section essentially inactive at JSM, Stephen Looney undertook a number of initiatives as 1995 program chair, including helping boost JSM submissions and inaugurating awards for JSM presentations and posters. Todd Nick, Ralph O’Brien, and Bob Oster continued these efforts as program chairs in subsequent years, and helped stabilize the section’s participation at the JSM. For example, Ralph O’Brien organized and often co-taught section-sponsored continuing education short courses at the JSM over a number of years (unfortunately, we have not followed up on his efforts in more recent years but we hope to reinstate such activities).

Other concerns in the late 1990s and early 2000s included the section’s mission and direction, governance, and membership, and mirrored to some extent issues that the ASA as a whole was grappling with. As a consequence of many discussions both within the section and the ASA, substantial revisions to the section charter were undertaken in 1999 and again in 2005 (with further minor revisions taking place since then). The section’s finances have also been monitored and reviewed periodically to ensure our fiscal health. And membership has been slowly but steadily increasing. The establishment of ASA Communities is one recent effort to boost member communication and interaction (the section’s Community site is here).

Although hard to believe now, in the mid-1990s, there was substantial controversy over a number of website issues—what content to include, who would have access, what security issues might arise, etc. Ralph O’Brien took the initiative and was almost single-handedly responsible for setting up and overseeing the section's first website, which was hosted at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation (where Ralph was employed at the time) for more than ten years. With so much changing over time, our website has recently undergone a substantial facelift and is now hosted by the ASA.

In the late 1990s, Todd Nick was instrumental in modernizing the section’s newsletter, and was then succeeded by Stephen Looney. By the early 2000s, a revamped newsletter was being emailed to members through a section distribution list. Around 2005, Renee Stolove helped define the roles and responsibilities of publication officer and newsletter editor, and those two positions were then taken up by Bob Oster and Ed Gracely, respectively, who still serve in those roles. At about the same time, the newsletter became available on the section’s website.

Stephen, Ralph, Todd, and Bob filled various section offices through the years, and were all elected section chairs in the late 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s. Ruth Mickey and Walter Ambrosius also gave generously of their time and served in various capacities during that period. But beyond their direct contributions to the section, these colleagues also enticed a new crop of volunteers to become involved in section activities—Cyndy Long, Ed Gracely, the late Patrick Arbogast, Jodi Lapidus, Scott Evans and many others took up some of the section’s work in the mid-to-late 2000s.

Cyndy Long organized networking of isolated biostatisticians in the late 1990s and early 2000s. She and Bob Oster were later involved in the establishment of the section’s major awards, which include the Distinguished Achievement Award, the Outstanding Teaching Award, and the Young Investigator Award (details about them can be found under Awards). Ed Gracely has been successfully editing the section’s newsletter for almost a decade. Cyndy, Patrick, and Jodi all served as both program chairs and section chairs. Cyndy and Patrick, in particular, focused on building stronger connections between the section and other ASA entities and initiatives. Scott led the section in support of two excellent webinars in 2008 (this is something that we hope to follow up on). And more recently, Miranda Kroehl started Teaching Statistics in Practice, a new ASA Community for students and recent graduates.

Today, the section numbers almost 700 members from more than two dozen countries, with a strong presence (about 20%) of students and recent graduates. The section has had a constant presence in recent ASA activities, including the JSM and the Education Council, and is also often involved in non-ASA activities, such as the International Biometric Society’s ENAR meetings.

All of us who are engaged in section activities in one way or another enjoy what we do. We serve you, the members, but we also learn from our section work and our interactions. We are not a closed clique—we always welcome new volunteers and we look forward to meeting you. If you find yourselves at JSM, please do show up at the TSHS mixer (check program listing for location and date/time). If you cannot make it, feel free to send an email to any of the section’s officers with your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions.

For more information:
Dawson-Saunders B, Jones P, and Verhulst S. The History of the Subsection on Teaching of Statistics in the Health Sciences. The American Statistician 1990;44(2):101-103.
Daskalakis C. ASA Section on Teaching of Statistics in the Health Sciences. Invited poster presented at the 2014 JSM, Boston, MA, August 2014.

[By necessity, this brief tracing of more than two decades of the section’s history is incomplete, and does not fully capture all the initiatives and dedicated efforts of numerous colleagues who have volunteered their time over the years, both in official and unofficial capacities. We would welcome additions or corrections. Please share with us your own recollections of section activities or individual contributions by emailing the site's webmaster.]