The Empowering Story of Women in Biostatistics: A Look into Dr. Susan Halabi's Career and the Mentors Who Shaped Her Path - Susan Halabi

June 22, 2023

In this discussion, Susan Halabi shares her unique career journey with Andrea Miyahira. Dr. Halabi discusses her initial interest in medical school, which changed course upon being introduced to biostatistics by a mentor. She has worked on research projects and pursued graduate work in the United States, with a network of influential female scientists and mentors supporting her career progression. She observes that the representation of women in biostatistics has increased over time. Despite this progress, Dr. Halabi recognizes the challenges women face in being viewed as service providers rather than scientists in their field. Her advice to women entering the field includes developing an early interest in math, seeking mentors, being proactive in career advancement, and obtaining family support for work-life balance. The conversation closes with Dr. Halabi expressing gratitude for her first grant from the Prostate Cancer Foundation, emphasizing the importance of self-belief and resilience in overcoming career obstacles.


Susan Halabi, PhD, Professor of Biostatistics & Bioinformatics Chief, Division of Biostatistics, Duke Cancer Institute, Durham, NC

Andrea K. Miyahira, PhD, Director of Global Research & Scientific Communications, The Prostate Cancer Foundation

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Andrea Miyahira: So Dr. Halabi, as a professor in biostatistics and bioinformatics, tell us about your career path.

Susan Halabi: Well, it's been really interesting. I received a bachelor in science and biostatistics, and at the time when I entered college, I had an idea, well, maybe I'll go into medical school, and I met this young faculty at American University of Beirut where she just came from Johns Hopkins University and she was a biostatistician, and it was really a coincidence I met this person. And when she mentioned the importance of biostatistics and the possibility of biostatistics, I jumped on that opportunity. I was really good in math and I thought, oh, I rather take a career where I would work on research rather than seeing patients per se. So that is how I got started in biostatistics. And then I came back to the US and studied at University of Texas. And then throughout my career, I would say I had several mentors formally and informally. So I would say behind every successful woman there were hundred of women behind me, and I'm really grateful for those opportunities that I had.

Andrea Miyahira: Yeah. Were there any women that helped to break down barriers that you saw specifically also from math and statistics in that field?

Susan Halabi: Absolutely. My first advisor was a young faculty member who had a PhD in biostatistics. It was a field that I never heard of. Many people haven't heard of biostatistics. I often had folks stopping me asking me, what does the field of biostatistics do? What would you do as a biostatistician? So definitely she helped break barriers in terms of giving me opportunities to work on research project. I was involved from the get go on those. And also, I'm grateful for her opportunity to help me come to the US and pursue my graduate work. And then when I'm here in the United States, I had opportunity from other female scientists who were terrific, Dr. Margaret Spitz and Dr. Melissa Bondi, who gave me opportunities to work at MD Anderson. And they really invested time in mentoring me, and they served as role models to me.

And I always knew when I left graduate school and embark on my career, I'm going to use the tips that I've learned from them. And it's the usual things that most women encountered throughout their career. How you do you carve time to do your research? I think this was the biggest problem I faced because as a statistician, I was viewed as a service person. Like, I'm here to design study, I'm here to analyze everybody's data, but I'm not here to develop my own scholarship or my own research. And I'm really grateful of those lessons. And even when I became a professor, at Duke throughout my career, I had women who will advise me on what to do. Do I spend more time working on analysis or do I carve the time to work on my own proposals for funding?

Andrea Miyahira: Yeah, I think that's a really important message, especially for people who are looking to enter your field. There are a lot of fields where there are not a lot of women, especially the farther up you look in the career path. What have you observed in your fields? Is there a lack of women? And has it changed over time?

Susan Halabi: Yeah, that's really interesting. When I went to graduate school, there were not too many women in biostatistics, but over time we have seen shifts. The numbers now are higher. So again, I would make a distinction between statistics and biostatistics. So more women are in biostatistics than men. And I think primarily because a lot of these programs are in schools of public health. So women gravitate towards the school of public health, and biostatistics is more working as a collaborative member of a scientific team. Whereas in statistics, people develop methods. So looking back, I would say when I was in graduate school, most of the students were I would say men. But definitely we've seen that in our programs. We've seen it in other schools that there's a higher number of women being in those graduate studies. And interesting enough, when I look at my department, I think we have a lot of women in our department, which really is a testament and reflects the woman in general in the field of biostatistics.

However, it did not come at no cost, right? I mean, there were a lot of challenges, and I say primarily because people view us as service. We're here to provide service. We're not here to do science. And that was, I would say, one of the biggest obstacle I faced when I was a statistician.

Andrea Miyahira: And looking at those obstacles. Do you have tips for other young women who are looking to enter this field, especially when it comes to obstacles like that, where they're not viewed as their own independent thinker, but as someone who's more of like a team member and helper?

Susan Halabi: I think people should not, first of all, be scared of math. I think math is fun, and I hope whoever is listening to me will realize you can do a lot with math. We are now going through as human beings, going through a very quantitative society. Everything you can think of need to be quantitative. However, I do realize that interest in math needs to start early, like during school. And then again, who are your math teacher? Are they investing in your learning? Are they framing the problems to you and giving you the skills needed to solve important problems? So I would say definitely interest in math is important. But what's interesting is that when you look at men or at boys who are not good at math, they still pursue careers in engineering and other sciences, whereas the women who are not as good in math are encouraged to go other fields.

So I would say don't let that be an obstacle. You will be surprised. And often we as women, we put obstacles in front of ourselves. So believe in yourself and pursue this career because at the end of the day, it is really very rewarding. You are solving important problems for humankind and society. So that is one. Then the other tip that's really important, wherever you are, whether you're in academic institution, whether you're in government or industry, try to find mentors on site, talk to them. And it's not like only when you have a problem, you want to seek them out, have a good working relationship. And I found out by having those mentors, they can guide you on several things, whether you need help with writing a proposal, whether you need help in publishing, help in terms of responding to comments from reviewers. All these things were all the time need and someone outside who's not involved too much in our daily work, who can give tips and can advise you.

And then I would say another third tip, don't expect people to do things for you as a woman without volunteering. You need to communicate your interests. You need to be vocal about that because by just saying, well, I'm doing good work, it's not sufficient. Go and advocate for yourself and find advocates who will give you opportunities. And lastly, you need to have the support of your family. Clearly, lot of women are hammered by their other responsibilities, house care, taken care of, parents, child rearing. All these activities involve a lot of time, and you need to have your family on board from day one.

Andrea Miyahira: Thank you. These are such important tips, and your career has been so inspiring. You've made such a difference in the prostate cancer field and biostatistics. So thank you for joining me today and sharing this with our viewers.

Susan Halabi: Thank you, Andrea. And I would like to add that thanks to the Prostate Cancer Foundation who gave me the first opportunity to obtain my external grant, even though it was very small, $50,000, but that really opened the door, and I invested time in writing more grants and being successful. So again, invest time in yourself, believe in yourself, and don't let anyone hold you back, because at the end of the day, the energy and the inertia you have is going to push you forward.

Andrea Miyahira: Thank you so much, Dr. Halabi.

Susan Halabi: Thank you, Andrea.