Week 7: The Tinku Effect
It’s about 9AM at St. John’s Research Institute (SJRI) when a smiling lady in a colorful, neatly pleated sari walks in to her office. Dr. Tinku Thomas, M.Sc, Ph.D., (nicknamed “Tinks”) is a biostatistician and assistant professor at SJRI. It was around the second week of my internship at St. John’s Research Institute that I really began to get to know Tinku. I and two other interns effectively moved into her office for the summer…and we were grateful that we did.
Our summer task involved learning how to use statistical software called SPSS (the program Stata is its counterpart). The purpose of SPSS was to help me make sense of a huge database of 2,000 pregnant women that included various body measurements, those of their babies, and data from food frequency questionnaires including every food group I could imagine. Needless to say, I at times felt like I was in over my head, drowning in waves of variables that overflowed like the Ganges.
What variable should I test first? Which test would be the best one to answer the questions we wanted to answer? Are we even asking the right questions? What are we trying to find? How is this study different from papers that have already been published on the topic? Running the tests in SPSS was not the hard part; the hard part was answering these questions and figuring out which of the hundreds of thousands of possible variations of tests to run.
Luckily, an expert bio-statistician—who not only helped me understand what we were doing, but also pushed me to lengths I didn’t think I could go—was mentoring me. I never thought I would conduct the data analysis for such a large cohort and write an accompanying scientific paper from scratch all in eight weeks. Indeed, another supervisor of ours exclaimed, “You’re undergraduates? Oh, I thought you were Ph.D. students!”
I was always impressed by Dr. Thomas’ patience, calmness, and clarity of direction and purpose. I was never afraid to ask her why we were doing what we were doing—especially because it was so easy to get lost in the hundreds of thousands of tests that we ran and to forget the intent of our study. Not only that, but when a test didn’t work quite right, she could quickly identify what had gone wrong…even with so many variables at play.
Dr. Thomas was always willing to take time out of her busy schedule (and I don’t just say this…she had people stopping in to see her every few minutes all day! A brain in high demand, indeed) to answer our sometimes-simple questions, and she did it with a smile. By the end of our internship, we joked that she would miss the hum of our computers and our soft-voiced chatter that was the backdrop of her office for two months. Thanks, Dr. Thomas!
About the Blogger
Shaira Bhanji is a Economics major with a secondary in Global Health/Health Policy at Harvard, where she is the Scientista Foundation Harvard Chapter Director. Her science experience includes research internships at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as well as at City of Hope National Medical Center. In addition to her studies, Shaira enjoys playing soccer, taking walks along the Charles, and making frequent visits to Boston Tea Stop. This summer, she is pursuing a research fellowship in malnutrition at St. John's National Academy of Health Sciences in Bangalore, India.