Alumni Spotlight – Marlina Nasution

Marlina Nasution is the Associate Director of Biostatistics for Parexel International, a biopharmaceutical services company. In 1991, she earned a Bachelor’s of Science from the Institut Pertanian Bogor (IPB) in the West Java Province of Indonesia and earned her Doctorate from NC State in 2000. After working for several years in the nonprofit organization Family Health International, Nasution joined PAREXEL International in 2008.

Q: How did you become interested in biostatistics?

A: My first interest was in statistics. This happened by nature as I was raised up in a home full of statistics textbooks, journals and discussion engaged. Not until entering undergraduate program of Statistics at Bogor Agricultural University (IPB), when I finally opened my eyes how statistics plays significant roles in so many areas. The first major opportunity that came to me for applying statistics was when I was doing my undergraduate research paper in Genetics. Then, during my study at NC State, I met with Ken Pollock, Cavell Brownie and Marie Davidian. Their work and leadership in biostatistics inspired me further. Since then, I developed more and more interest into biostatistics.

Q: What responsibilities do you have as the Associate Director of Biostatistics at PAREXEL?

A: As an Associate Director of Biostatistics, I am responsible for the recruitment and oversight of a team of talented biostatisticians. This includes ensuring successful delivery of his/her organization’s project deliverables, on time with high quality. I am also responsible to resource client projects with suitably developed professionals and to retain and develop these professionals within PAREXEL; to promote new business by participating in project bids and client presentations and; to provide expertise and consultation to project teams, strategic initiatives or strategic partnerships as a Subject Matter Expert.

Q: What statistical topics do you feel are most important for someone in your field?

A: My work field is in the area of Pharmaceutical research that heavily engages clinical trials. Hence, I would consider statistical topics relevant to clinical trials as most important. These include both basic topics, such as basic summary statistics, two-sample hypothesis tests and Kaplan-Meier survival analysis, and advanced topics, such as multiplicity, missing data, competing risk, adaptive designs and Bayesian methods.

Q: Are there any non-statistical topics that you feel will benefit students who want to work in the pharmaceutical industry?

A: Not only that biostatisticians need to have knowledge in statistical topics, but also skills in attention to details, communication (both writing and verbal communication) and time management. When biostatisticians develop statistical analysis plan, they will need to communicate well with other functions including data management, clinical and medical groups. In a CRO like PAREXEL, biostatisticians are also obligated to communicate their works to their clients. Additionally, they also need to be able to meet certain timelines while still focusing on quality of works.

Q: What do you remember most about being a graduate student at NC State?

A: During my study, Sastry often quoted one of criteria of graduate students that “Every graduate student drinks coffee”. Every time I heard, I smiled since I didn’t drink coffee at all. According to this, I was not even considered as a graduate student. However, reading in between lines to what he said, every graduate student will need hard-work, more reasonably ‘smart-work’, to finish up the study. I really had to do that to complete my program, as I happened to also carry, deliver and raise my baby during my study. That is what I remember most!

Q: What was your dissertation research about and with whom did you work?

A: The main topic was about building a model to estimate survival and emigration rates of combining regular banding and radio-tagging capture-recapture data of animals. Identifiability of model and optimal allocation of sample sizes between the two types of capture-recapture in the model were also examined. The research was turned into three peer-reviewed, published articles. In addition to Rob Bennetts (University of Florida alumnus) and Roger Powell (Department of Zoology, NC State), Cavell Brownie and Kenneth Pollock were also co-authors. I was so grateful to have both Cavell and Ken as my awesome advisors while the two were also well-known leaders in the area of capture-recapture.

Q: Do you remember any particularly thrilling or frustrating moment about your graduate research?

A: As my research was focusing on building a model, one of thrilling moment was when finally, the model did work and the many simulations done supported it! Additionally, it felt so great that when chapters of my dissertation were finally published in peer-reviewed journals (and later, a number of colleagues requested these as their work references). In between those thrilling moments, there were certainly times when frustration appeared as a part of process, like narrowing down topics of capture recapture, model derivation was not progressing, simulation was failed and meetings with advisors were not leading for a progress. One thing that I found helpful was to build many small milestones, rather than having only one end goal. By this, I could let myself to be more focused positively.

Q: How did studying in Java for your Bachelor’s degree compare to studying in the United States for your graduate degree? Were there any major culture shocks?

A; It might be like comparing apples to oranges when comparing my time in Java for my Bachelor (‘undergraduate’) and my time in US for my ‘graduate’ degree. I would rather see my study in Java for my Bachelor as a good support to my study in US for my graduate degree. In general, studying in Java where not only my family but also extended ones and colleagues lived required a very high skill of time management to be able to still perform my social responsibilities while studying. Meanwhile, studying in United States allowed me to be more focused on study while still devoted my time to my husband and my kids.

With a few faculty members at Statistics Department of IPB whom graduated from NC State at that time, I was able to get advice and a general picture of what I might experience at NC State ahead of time. Arriving in Raleigh, NC, I was also grateful to be able to connect with family friends and NC State faculties, including late Dr. Cockerham and his family, during my adjustment period living in United States. These helped me tremendously!

Still, I experienced culture shocks including learning style (Java, Indonesia: passive discussion, quiet, no/rarely questions asked vs. US: active discussion, ask a lot of questions), language barrier and food, particularly in my early years.

Q: What advice would you give to a student who has just graduated and wants to work as a biostatistician?

A: There is no ‘default’ path for becoming a biostatistician. By definition, biostatistics is the application of statistics to a wide range of topics in biology. Then, it may be a good start in planning by taking math and biology in your undergraduate program. You may also want to take introduction courses to specific topics like genetics. Entering graduate program, you can further focus on advanced levels of topics of interest such as experimental and clinical pharmacology and human genetics, or even, choosing to devote yourself in a biostatistics program! In addition to courses or programs to consider, you may also want to keep up with your programming skills (e.g. SAS, R or Splus). With good programming, biostatisticians will better function in particular when in need to calculate results derived using an advanced statistical approach or when validating results produced by others.

The other thing that I found as important is to get to know and apply your grit. Nowadays, more and more companies including ones in the area of pharmaceutical industries are in need of ‘experienced’ biostatisticians. How can you have the experience just right after your graduation? By being engaged since early on! Connect with faculty members who develop similar interests. Attend departmental biostatistics working group seminars or any larger biostatistics seminar/meeting/workshop. Look for opportunities for teaching or research assistantship (or GIT for NC State Statistics graduate program) or an intern in relevant companies. Use LinkedIn to connect with people who are in the area of your interest. A simple email to those people asking questions about company interests or future recruitment may open your opportunity!

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