Brian Tom is a Programme Leader at the MRC Biostatistics Unit (BSU). He leads the Precision Medicine theme and has been part of the Unit for nearly 20 years, gradually rising from Postdoctoral Researcher to Programme Leader.
Brian discusses his unexpected route to becoming a biostatistician, what inspires him as a researcher, why biostatistics is so important, and what Black History Month means to him.
Growing up in Trinidad, it was never my intention to go into research. Due to my affinity towards Maths, I was always encouraged and directed towards a career as an Actuary, because it was seen as one of the top professions. Immediately after completing my undergraduate degree at UWI [the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad], I had a three-month internship as a trainee Actuary at an Insurance Firm, however I found it was not the career path for me. Fortunately, I also had the option of taking up a Cambridge Commonwealth Scholarship to read for the Part III of the Mathematical Tripos at the University of Cambridge.
When looking back, you can sometimes see the role played by good fortune or serendipity. For me this happened when I unintentionally got my induction schedule mixed up. I missed the registration session for the Part III students, and consequently, alone and with some degree of anxiety, I visited Professor Tom Korner’s office to let him know that I had arrived in Cambridge and was here to do Part III. I don’t recall our full conversation, but I remember clearly when he asked me what area of Mathematics I was interested in, to which I answered, “I am interested in statistics and I’m planning to take mainly statistics courses”. On hearing this, Dr Korner (he was not yet a Professor) got up and took me to see Dr Pat Altham, who was the Director of the Diploma in Mathematical Statistics. Pat was responsible for me transferring into the Diploma, and then reading for a PhD, and she should be credited for directing me towards a career in biostatistics research.
The Diploma, through my applied project with Amgen, exposed me to medical statistics, where I worked on constructing confidence intervals for the difference in median survival times; which I then applied to data from a clinical trial on small cell lung cancer. My PhD allowed me to pursue research in biostatistics in the area of event history analysis and counting processes, where I not only was guided by Pat, but also had input from David Clayton and Peter Whittle along the way. Then, three years working as a consulting medical statistician and a year as a project statistician within the University provided me with the foundation and platform to move back into methodological and applied research, here at the MRC Biostatistics Unit.
I have to say that I have been extremely fortunate in my career so far. There have been encounters that I have had to navigate carefully, but on the whole, my journey so far has not been filled with major obstacles or treacherous paths.
One of my more memorable moments since being at the BSU, which has nothing to do with research, was the day of my 30th birthday. I arrived at work to find the Reception was decked out with Trinidad and Tobago flags, and my office was decorated like Santa’s grotto with streamers, balloons, glitter and a “happy 30th birthday” banner. It was such a shock, especially as I had purposely worked late the day before! However, after the initial surprise and embarrassment, I was able to truly appreciate the amazing gesture, and be thankful for my fantastic colleagues and friends at the BSU. My belief that the Unit is more than just a workplace has continued since.
There are many things that inspire me as a researcher. Without mentioning any names, there are a number of people throughout my career (and before) who have been role models and who have been instrumental in enabling me to be where I am now. I am also inspired by the research problems and discovering ways of tackling and solving them. Moreover, my motivation comes from being able to make a contribution, however small, to improving human health.
Biostatistics is a fascinating field with enormous breadth, from basic science to population health, from methodological development to applied work, from academia to industry. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it more apparent that in this digital and “data-rich” world we now live in, it is extremely important to have people with the quantitative skills and training to be able to understand, interrogate and interpret the wealth of data that we are now exposed to and grappling with. It is an exciting time for statisticians and data scientists, with many opportunities to contribute to human health, which I see only increasing in the years to come.
When thinking about Black History Month this October, I try to focus on the many achievements and contributions (often in spite of adversities) made through the centuries of Black, Asian, Minority and Mixed Ethnic Britons and those from Commonwealth countries to the United Kingdom, to celebrate these and to look forward to future accomplishments and to a fairer, kinder and tolerant Britain.
I have been fortunate not to have been exposed in any significant manner to the racial discrimination that others may have gone through growing up and living in Britain. I had a few encounters when I was a student in Cambridge with random people shouting out racial abuse from cars passing by, or in conversations that make reference to “My kind [of people]”, but on the whole I have been lucky. This is, of course, not to say that my experiences as a student and as an academic here in Cambridge are in any way typical. There is so much more that can be done to promote equality, diversity and inclusion. In statistics/biostatistics, there is a clear under-representation of Black academics and researchers in University departments and Research Units in the UK, and this needs to be tackled.