In love with learning

Biostatistician Mary Redman combines math, science, teamwork in the creation of her dream job
Dr. Mary Redman
Dr. Mary Redman's job involves answering questions posed by the Southwest Oncology Group. Currently, she is helping to develop protocols for the treatment of lung cancer and working with the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial. Photo by Stephanie Cartier

In an office splashed with vibrant orange accents and with Lake Union for a backdrop, Dr. Mary Redman spends her days doing what she loves: learning.

As one of the newest biostatisticians in the Public Health Sciences Division's Southwest Oncology Group, Redman regularly works with researchers to help design studies, provide guidance and then sort through and analyze reams of research data. To do all that, she has to fully understand each trial.

"I love learning about research, what people are doing and the science behind the questions that are being asked," Redman said. "As a biostatistician, you basically are right there at the forefront. You have access to all these scientists and medical doctors, and you get to ask them lots and lots of questions. That's what's really fun."

Finding her future

Redman, who joined the Center in 2005, knew early on what she wanted to do with her life. While working on a math degree as an undergraduate at the University of Washington in the mid-1990s, Redman found her future — with some help from her college roommate. "Her mother is a pathologist at Harborview and does research there. I had worked in a research lab and was doing math. She told me that I should be a biostatistician," Redman said. "I didn't really know what that was, so I checked it out, and it seemed like something completely perfect."

After discovering what she was meant to do, the Seattle native looked at programs across the country, only to end her search close to home. "I realized that I was quite lucky in the fact that one of the best departments in the country was in my back yard."

As soon as she earned her diploma, she continued studying at the UW. Initially pursuing a master's degree, after the first year, Redman was ready to learn more, so she stayed put and completed her doctorate.

While she doesn't spend her time perusing medical journals cover-to-cover to understand the mechanisms behind the research, she said she enjoys working side-by-side with investigators writing those very articles. "The more time you spend with those people, the more you get to understand those things," Redman said. "And without that understanding, you can't analyze the data. It's not just about putting data into a black box and getting the answers. It's really about understanding what you're doing and what the data mean. Without that, you can't answer the questions."

Part of her work involves answering questions posed by SWOG. Currently, she is helping to develop protocols for the treatment of lung cancer. She is also working with the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial.

"I'm dealing with complex data situations where the analyses you do aren't necessarily standard, so you have to think through how best to analyze the data," Redman said. The challenge comes from having a specific question and the data, and trying to fit the two together so that you can use the data to answer the question. "I've been working with the PCPT to find the baldness drug finasteride's effect on high-grade PIN, which is a precancerous lesion, and also looking at whether or not finasteride affects the development of high-grade prostate cancers."

She's also able to continue doing her own research, but there is quite a bit of intentional overlap. "I've been really trying to integrate my own research into a lot of what goes on at SWOG because it's so rich with data and great people." One area that has caught Redman's attention is complex systems.

Large, complicated data sets mean that sometimes things aren't as they seem, so analysis must be deliberate and careful to ensure that a particular variable is actually making the impact it appears to be making. Redman's work also applies to predictive factors in clinical trials. "We look at how factors that interact with treatment basically predict how well somebody might do with treatment," Redman said.

Working with so many different projects means she works with a multitude of different people. In addition to helping her learn, these connections sometimes place her in a teaching role. "One of the aspects of this group is that we don't work in a vacuum; you really have to have interpersonal skills," Redman said. "Sometimes what's the ideal is not what's practical, so one needs to be able to explain ideas in terms that make sense." Doing so can mean cutting out the statistical jargon, which for Redman is easy to use. She finds the greater challenge is being able to communicate with everyone on the team. "It's definitely a back and forth — a collaboration. You work with scientists who have a general idea and then you have to talk about what's feasible. They'll have a big question, and then we figure out what question can actually be answered."

Energy and expertise

Her colleagues appreciate her contributions and abilities. "Mary brings to us unique and valued expertise in the analysis of longitudinal data, data that are missing due to causes related to the outcome of interest, and data not generated by randomization," said Dr. John Crowley, CEO of Cancer Research and Biostatistics (CRAB), who works with Redman on SWOG's Lung Committee.

"In addition to the science, her energy, enthusiasm and sense of humor has been a great addition to the group," said colleague Dr. Michael LeBlanc of SWOG. "Mary's research into causal methods and other clinical methods should yield important insights into data collected on some of the long-term therapeutic and prevention studies conducted by SWOG."

With a great job in her beloved hometown, Redman feels she is just getting started. "My goal has always been to stay in Seattle. I like working in research. I like working for a non-profit and I like working with good people. This job has all of those things, and I don't feel it has a ceiling. I see this as a place where I can continue to grow and learn — forever. I feel I really got lucky."

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