Layla Parast Aims to Improve Healthcare Using Biostatistics
Original article on the UT Research Showcase website:
New faculty members in the College of Natural Sciences take on the important roles of mentor and researcher, always pushing the limits of science and inspiring their pupils. This academic year, we gained faculty members whose compelling character and work are worth learning about. Meet new statistics and data science professor, Layla Parast, whose work in biostatistics aims to improve medical treatments and trial outcomes.
Much of your research has to do with medical care, is there a specific reason for this?
I was working on a master's degree in statistics and took a class in epidemiology and really liked it. That was the first time I studied math and health together and it inspired me to pursue a Ph.D. in biostatistics at Harvard. Then after my Ph.D., I went to the RAND Corporation, which is a nonprofit think tank that does a lot of military work, health policy work, criminal justice work, education work and so on. When I first went to RAND, I dabbled in all of those different areas, but still found that at the end of the day, health was primarily what I was passionate about. It made me excited to go to work and do statistics.
At the RAND Corporation, you co-directed its Center for Causal Inference. Can you tell me a bit about the projects you worked on there?
I worked on the implementation and designing of patient experience surveys that you get after you spend time in a hospital. You have to choose how many people per hospital you're going to send it to, you have to randomly sample, and then you have to adjust the scores based on the fact that different hospitals care for different patient populations. At first, I felt like the experience wasn't that important. It seemed like what was most important was whether the doctor cures you or saves your life, not necessarily if they were nice to you. But there's actually been a lot of evidence to show that people's experience matters a lot. So, even though it feels like a very touchy-feely thing, it really does matter.
Why did you choose to return to UT?
It basically has to do with COVID. I think COVID and the shutdown made people reevaluate their lives. I loved RAND. It was very fulfilling and exciting, but it was at a very high level, and I couldn't point to any one person whose life I'd made better or changed in any way. And when I was a Ph.D. student, I was a teaching assistant, and I had a small class of my own one year. I just loved that look on [students'] faces when they don't understand something, and then you say it in a different way, and then they understand it. That's such a great feeling. Then I saw the UT job posting and it was for multiple positions, and my husband's also in academia. I just thought, "I love Texas. I grew up in Texas. My parents are still here. It would be great to come back, kind of over L.A." I didn't think we'd both get an offer. But then when we did, we were so happy.
You're leading an NIH-funded study evaluating "surrogate markers" for diabetes. Can you explain what those are and why they might be useful in healthcare?
Many clinical studies are designed to test treatments or interventions that take five, 10, 20 years to evaluate the treatment, especially with something like diabetes prevention or prevention of dementia onset. The idea with the surrogate marker is if you can identify something like a blood biomarker that lets you measure how effective the treatment is earlier, then you can make a decision about the treatment earlier and get it to the larger patient population. So if you can measure that one year into the study versus waiting 10 years, that's a huge saving in terms of time and obviously money for conducting the study.
What do you hope to accomplish at UT?
Our department just got a new major approved. It's the statistics and data science undergrad major, and I was asked to co-create and co-teach the first class. It feels very exciting to be part of something that's new and I think it's going to be really well received and hopefully a popular choice. I'm also excited that it'll be for freshmen. There are certainly challenges with teaching freshmen, especially a math-based class where they're going to come in with so many different backgrounds. I really liked the idea of getting to help students as they're making that transition from high school to college.