Unit to provide statistical support to staff, students

Associate Prof Robin Turner, director of the University of Otago’s biostatistics unit. Photo:...
Associate Prof Robin Turner, director of the University of Otago’s biostatistics unit. Photo: Gregor Richardson
No statistical survey will ever be perfect, the director of the University of Otago’s biostatistics unit, Robin Turner, says.

However, health surveys carried out by Otago staff and students will hopefully be as close to perfect as they can thanks to the work of the biostatistics unit.

A recently established part of the dean’s department of the School of Medicine, the biostatistics unit specialises in applying statistical techniques and methods to answer health-related questions.

"More broadly, it’s how to get the right research question refined in the right way in the right study, so you will get the right answer in the end," Associate Prof Turner said.

A sound piece of research was one where a survey could be repeated with the same grouping of people with the same questions and come up with similar findings, she said.

"That said, it’s not one size fits all: what could be a challenge for one research project might not be relevant for other research projects," Prof Turner said.

"That could depend on the disease you were looking at, or the location, or the type of study you were dealing with ... we work best when we are involved early, because then we get to know enough detail about the project to be able to figure out what are the important things we need to take care of."

All academic studies had limitations and it was important to recognise those, to both ensure the right analysis was done and to frame the interpretation of the results.

"Some surveys will have certain biases they are more prone to, and that should be managed right from the beginning," Prof Turner said.

"If something is new and emerging and it is very rare, the approach you might take is very different to when there are lots of numbers available; for example, you might not want to put statistics on it at all and take more of a descriptive approach."

The university had used a biostatistical approach to research before, but establishing the five person strong unit meant it would underpin research and be a more visible service.

"As a unit it means people know where we are and how to contact us," Prof Turner, who has a background in both statistics and epidemiology, said.

"We help everyone, and it is very important that the students get the right statistical support too — we will be running workshops to help upskill people if they need that kind of support, and if students want to run some stats past us, then we can help with that."

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz  

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