SAS loves stats: Richard Zink

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Richard Zink, SAS

Richard Zink, SAS

Richard Zink’s desire to win strategy board games like Axis and Allies and Fortress America in college got him started on the path to a career in statistics.

“I wanted to better understand the rules of probability to make me a better player,” recalled Zink, a Principal Research Statistician Developer in the JMP division.

A mathematics major at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC), the bulk of his upper-level courses were in probability and statistics. “It seemed like a more straightforward way of getting a job,” Zink said.

Yet it was an internship at the Laboratory for Cardiovascular Science at the National Institute of Aging (a branch of NIH) and a new hire at the university that actually led him to graduate school.

“The mathematics department at UMBC hired a biostatistician who encouraged me to continue with my education,” said Zink, who earned a master’s and a PhD in biostatistics at UNC-Chapel Hill, while initially working as a research assistant on a cardiovascular study at the Collaborative Studies Coordinating Center.

After completing his doctorate, he spent eight years in the pharmaceutical industry, first at Bristol-Myers Squibb working on clinical trials in viral hepatitis and leukemia, and then at a small biotech company for diseases including dry eye, glaucoma and cystic fibrosis.

In the pharmaceutical industry, however, despite the best of planning, things often don’t work out as expected. He needed a new job, so his wife encouraged him to apply at SAS. One day he typed “clinical trials” in the job search field and a job in JMP® Clinical popped up.

Now as a Developer for JMP Clinical, he works on projects aimed at streamlining the review and analysis of safety data from clinical trials.

“You have this large number of adverse events that subjects in a clinical trial could experience,” Zink said. “We want to understand the level of risk for a particular treatment while trying to balance between false positives (attributing excess risk) and false negatives (unable to detect a risk).”

One of the first projects Zink worked on involved an analysis of serious adverse events – events so severe they result in patient hospitalization, disability or death.

“Clinical trial sponsors need to write adverse event narratives as a way of documenting it for themselves and explaining what happened to the FDA or other regulatory agencies,” Zink explained.

The JMP team turned that need into new features that allow researchers to write the narratives in paragraph form directly from the source data.

“It’s a big savings in time and [ensures]better quality control,” Zink said.

“We try to anticipate safety questions that people want to ask about an adverse event so we can put the information in the dashboard within easy reach of a researcher,” added Zink, noting that the product is used by statisticians at a drug company, clinicians, medical writers and data managers.

“JMP Clinical can take the pressure off statisticians and programmers, and empower clinical teams to look at data themselves and have a better understanding of it,” he said.

Zink likes getting to work on interesting problems and using his creativity. “Coming to SAS, I thought that I would be programming every day, all day, but I also have the opportunity to write papers and blog posts, present at conferences and talk with customers about how they would like to use the software.”

“To be able to work on something that could make people’s jobs a lot easier and potentially identify safety issues in a clinical trial -- that’s pretty rewarding.”

Learn more about Richard Zink in this Q&A, and read about other statisticians in the SAS loves stats series. Also, be sure to check out our International Year of Statistics page for more statistics resources.

WHAT SHOULD READERS KNOW ABOUT THE FIELD OF STATISTICS?

People always think about statistics at the end of the trial or project, but upfront it is important to design your experiment in such a way that you collect meaningful data. If you collect good data, your statistical analysis at the end should be straightforward. Otherwise, you find yourself using complicated methods to address deficiencies in the study design.

WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE TO STUDENTS?

  • Get as much exposure as you can with statistics, whether you are going to be a statistician or not.
  • There are a lot of jobs available now, and because people are looking at more and more data, there will be even more jobs over time. There are a lot of possibilities to telecommute in this field. With a laptop and an internet connection, you can do your job from anywhere.
  • Focus less on formulas and more on the statistical concepts and how to interpret your findings.
  • Take courses in public speaking and scientific writing. Statisticians really need to know how to communicate because many people have an inherent fear of math. Statisticians need to be able to take a complicated idea and simplify it so the average person can understand it.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of graphics. A single picture can explain a concept much easier than paragraphs of words. Some statistics presentations are chock-full of equation after equation. The best talks I have seen about statistics have very few formulas. It’s better to frame the problem and describe in words how your method is the better way to solve it.

DO YOU HAVE A FUNNY STORY ABOUT STATISTICS?
Read this JMP blog post about an encounter at the Canadian border when asked what I do a living.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE STATISTICS JOURNAL OR BLOG?

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog

WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE STATISTICIAN?
Don Berry and Stephen Senn. If I am at a conference and either one is speaking, I will go out of my way to see them talk. They are very good speakers and very entertaining to watch.

WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO OUTSIDE OF WORK?

  • Scuba diving: “I got hooked watching Jacques Cousteau shows as a kid. I got certified while on my honeymoon in the Greek Isles. I particularly like wreck diving. There are a lot of sunken ships off the North Carolina coast. I also dive in the Florida Keys and on the St. Lawrence Seaway, where there are wooden shipwrecks intact – even from the late 1800s – so you can swim through them.”
  • Reading, particularly dystopian novels. Recently finished The Children of Men by P.D. James, The Iron Heel by Jack London and We by Yergeny Zamyatin.
  • Spend time with family (he and his wife have two sons, Eli and Abram).
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Kim Darnofall

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