She’s been profiled everywhere from Forbes to Elle to Simplystatistics.org. She has received prestigious awards from the NIH and the American Statistical Association.
And she’s just 28 years old.
But awards and honors aren’t what it’s about for the School of Public Health’s Daniela Witten, assistant professor in the nation’s No. 1 rated Biostatistics Department. She’s in it for the work.
“It’s really fun being a statistician these days,” she says. “We hold a lot of keys to bridging the gap between the data that’s available and the questions that people want to answer in a variety of fields.”
The Stanford-educated Witten is honing in on a revolution in biomedical research: designing individual medical treatment based on a patient’s DNA, created with the information she gathers and analyzes. “We’re not there yet,” she says. “It’s a process that’s going to require hard work. But hopefully we’ll be able to bridge that gap soon.”
To get there, Witten, who has been at the UW for two years, is conducting research in statistical machine learning; that is, developing statistical tools for the analysis of large data sets.
“Various technologies have been developed—a lot of them at the UW—that make it possible to determine what’s going on within a particular tissue or even a particular cell. We can get a very detailed molecular snapshot of what an individual’s DNA looks like, which genes are turned on or turned off, and which proteins are circulating in an individual’s bloodstream.”
And with that information—and the tools to interpret it—she thinks we’ll one day be able to create pinpointed solutions to vexing medical problems such as cancer and other complex diseases.
“Biomedical researchers all over the world are generating huge data sets that could correspond to an individual’s DNA sequence or the gene expression levels of patients with a particular type of cancer,” she says. “The statistical challenge involves taking this huge amount of data and turning it into information that can be used to inform patient treatment.
“That’s what makes biomedical research really exciting. The questions that are being solved are so important.”—Seattle freelance writer Diane Mapes is a regular contributor to Columns