Carlin reaps rewards of biostats work

Bradley P. Carlin

Carlin reaps rewards of biostats work

It's important to have good taste, according to University of Minnesota Professor Bradley P. Carlin. Good taste in mathematical problems, that is.

For Carlin, a statistician who graduated magna cum laude from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1984 with a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a focus in actuarial science, learning while at UNL how to ask questions that have not yet been asked or still need to be solved, i.e. having a "good taste in problems," he said, has been an asset to him in his career.

After completing his bachelor's degree at UNL, Carlin studied statistics at the University of Connecticut, where he earned his Master of Science and a Ph.D. in Statistics in 1989. He went on to Carnegie Mellon University in a two-year visiting assistant professor position and then was a visiting research associate at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

Since May 2010, Carlin has been the department chair in the Division of Biostatistics at the School of Public Health at Minnesota and Mayo Professor in Public Health, but he has taught at the university since 1991.

Carlin discovered there were many "good problems" to answer in the health field during his Ph.D. study. At the University of Minnesota, Carlin has balanced his time between clinical trials work and epidemiological studies. Some of the problems that Carlin worked on in past years include: asthma prevention, breast cancer treatment, AIDS research and alcoholism. The heart of his current work is to use mathematical analysis to uncover links where they exist between behaviors and illnesses.

"This work is tremendously rewarding," Carlin said. "It makes me feel as though I am making a difference."

Although Carlin has written or co-authored more than 130 articles and six books, he is most proud of the Ph.D. students whom he has mentored. As chair, Carlin said his greatest joy and responsibility is in the students to whom he is mentoring and teaching life skills and "survival skills as a researcher." Two of his former students, who he notes have gone on to do great things, are Brian Hobbs, an assistant professor of Biostatistics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and Laura Hatfield, an assistant professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School.

Carlin has been a Ph.D. thesis advisor for 14 graduated students, and by 2014, will have mentored a total of 17 doctoral students.

He attributes his success to having outstanding mentors of his own at UNL, such as mathematics Professors Allan Peterson and Gordon Woodward and Professor Emeritus Dave Skoug. He cites UNL's Warren Luckner, David P. Hayes Memorial Chair in Actuarial Science and Director of Actuarial Science, as a major formative force as well. The open door policy of faculty and their accessibility to even undergraduate students were of pivotal importance for Carlin in those early years. The encouragement of these professors whom he came to deeply respect allowed him to persevere through challenging coursework. Carlin considers them as mentors not only in matters of mathematics, but also in terms of the supportive advice they offered on life and career decisions.

Classes that Carlin cited as particularly formative were Real Analysis with Woodward and Calculus with Peterson. Also, "I learned a lot about teaching from these professors," Carlin said.

As a mathematician, Carlin said students are taught math – but not necessarily how to become a teacher. He said he learned most of what he knows about how to teach from his gifted professors at UNL.

While at UNL, Carlin earned a Regents Scholarship, allowing him to focus on not only his coursework but also to indulge in his love of music. Carlin minored in music while at UNL and has carried this love of music with him; he credits music as what helped him balance the rigors of mathematical study. Carlin's current musical activities include working as contemporary music coordinator for Good Samaritan United Methodist Church in Edina, Minn., coordinator and trombonist for the Minnesotans for Nebraska pep band, and keyboardist for the band Bacon's Rebellion.

Although he and his wife, Caroline Carlin, Ph.D. (also an alumna of UNL, who earned her bachelor's degree in mathematics and a focus in actuarial science in 1985, and is currently a Research Investigator for the Medica Research Institute), both have moved out of pure mathematics into health economics and biostatistics, respectively, they are a case of two successful graduates who came out of the math program at UNL and completed doctoral programs, a testament to the education they received at UNL. Study at UNL laid a strong foundation for Carlin to study statistics in Hartford, Conn., at what he describes as the one of the best programs in the country.

When asked what advice he would give to current UNL undergraduate and graduate students, Carlin said, "Try to stay focused and take advantage of the great educational opportunity you have been given. Make yourself a schedule and stick to it." He added that the key to his success can be distilled to not being afraid to work hard. Among his greatest attributes, he said, has been a knack for setting goals and relentlessly pursuing them.

With all of the distractions for students today, such as cell phones and the Internet, he offered this metaphor for surviving coursework to students: "Avoid the chips and junk food on the Internet and stick to the meat and potatoes – the things that fill you up instead of the things that leave you hungry a short time later."

-Stephanie Vendetti