Spotlight on Vanderbilt Biostatistics: Mario Davidson, Ph.D.

Nick Shell
June 18, 2018

To begin our new series, Spotlight on Vanderbilt Biostatistics, we are excited to feature one of our faculty members, Mario Davidson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in Biostatistics. Read on to learn more about his research and outside interests:

What is your research focused on and what is the potential impact? 

My current collaboration is with the School of Medicine.  A few years ago the curriculum for medical students changed.  Under the previous curriculum, students were in lecture halls a lot during their first few years; with the new curriculum, they are seeing patients right off the bat in their first year. 

The curriculum has been embraced by experts and is moving toward competency based education.  Students take different courses, have multiple clinical rotations, and are measured in various ways by a variety of clinicians.  Students are assessed frequently using milestones, such as behavioral anchors, entrustable professional activities, simulations, and more.  The students receive feedback right away and can implement changes using their new knowledge; however, it can be difficult to assess the success and impact of the new curriculum. 

Much of the data is taken on a 5-point Likert scale.  It is qualitative and quantitative, and there is a great deal of small numbers of observations for many assessments.  This lends to messy data and the typical analyses do not tend to resolve our main questions: Is the curriculum working?  How can we assess when the students are ready for promotion? 

To add, because this curriculum is cutting edge we are the pioneers and we do not have gold standards to measure our data against.  However, if all goes well, this research will serve the student better and be useful in helping other curriculums attempting to use our school’s model. 

 

Tell us about a significant publication in your career. 

I recently had my first, first-author paper accepted.  It took three years to finally get it approved.  Admittedly, the peer review process worked.  I’m a better writer for it and the paper’s final draft is substantially better than the first.  I’m very excited about it! 

I teach a statistical collaboration course in our department and decided to discuss the curriculum in this publication.  When I began developing the curriculum, I was surprised by how little research was out there on this type of course.  Institutes that offer a course like this one are not streamlined by any means.  Some places have an internship; others have consulting services; and others allow their students to shadow a mentor.  These courses are very different from the typical “hard” skill courses such as regression, theory, categorical data, etc. 

I was shocked when I had to piece together the important topics based on the dearth of literature, and perhaps even more shocked when I realized that it was difficult to have a course that addressed all of the important suggested topics.  With a little creativity, trial and error, and advice from people like Jeffrey Blume and Matt Shotwell, I developed a curriculum that tackled all of the topics in a feasible manner.  Our course focuses on working with clients, asking questions, communicating effectively, being professional, managing one’s time, working ethically, and much more. 

If you are interested in learning more about it, click here.

  

What was your draw to statistics?

My father is the local newspaper’s sports editor and writer and as a kid, he’d take me to the basketball and football games.  One of the things I enjoyed most about those experiences was the stats sheets.  As a journalist, he’d receive the stats for the game after the halves and final quarters and I enjoyed reading and “analyzing” them.  

When I was trying to figure out what I’d major in in college, someone asked me about my interest and told me that actuarial science may appeal to me.  I agreed and went to Tennessee State University as a math major.  I fell in love with statistics when I had my first class.  Unlike my other mathematical courses: Cal I – Cal IV, I did not have to ask, “Why?”  It was so obvious that what we were learning was relevant and useful.  I suspect somewhere in between my interest in mathematics and my enjoyment at the games I discovered that I wanted to focus on statistics. 

 

What is your best advice for aspiring statisticians?

My best advice for aspiring statisticians is to use school to learn as much as you can and to learn to work with others.  As John Donne said, “No man is an island.”  When I was in school, I had a peer who worked part time.  He’d take classes and go back to work afterward.  So while most of us didn’t work or had a TA or an RA position, we had an opportunity to hang around the university all day.  We were able to learn from one another and to help each other when we got stuck.  He didn’t initially, and struggled because of it.  During his second year, he started hanging out more with others in the Department and his understanding dramatically improved. 

Another piece of advice I would offer is to constantly work on your communication.  We write and talk a lot to researchers, statisticians, students, administrators, staff, etc.  We prepare grants, analysis plans, emails, presentations, papers, and reports.  One cannot underestimate the ability to communicate.  Even more, because we deal with so many people, conflicts arise and difficult situations may take place.  When you communicate well, you can stave off a lot of situations before they occur, and stifle many that do occur.   

 

What is your teaching philosophy?

As far as my philosophy, here are the take home points: 

Teachers should be somewhat entertaining, teach with real world situations, and provide opportunities for group work and a variety of feedback. 
 It’s important to recognize that we all learn differently and thus teachers should use various modalities. 

I personally believe in constructivism whereby the learner builds their own knowledge. Statistical/mathematical educational research has shown that students learn better when interacting, working in groups.  I don’t believe lecturing is bad; it lends itself well to certain exercises and topics.  However, I don’t feel it is the most effective way to reach the learner in general.  We should try flipped classrooms, multimedia, group work, discovery, labs, problem-based and project based methods, simulations, videos, case-based learning, etc.  Juxtaposed with providing assessments and feedback, I believe students learn better with these approaches. Ultimately, I strongly believe in student-centered methods; these methods are interactive and engaging.     

 

What makes Vanderbilt special?

Vanderbilt has a wonderful culture!  I’ve been working at Vanderbilt a little over ten years now and I’ve learned a lot about statistics, medicine, and people. We have so many talented faculty, staff, and students and I’ve seen our department grow in wonderful ways.  People are doing cutting edge research; getting grants and being published in top journals like NEJM, Biometrics, and Cancer.  Not to mention, our graduate program is providing a world class education.  It is innovative, teaching Bayesian, Frequentist, and Likelihood approaches and currently is developing a data science program.  The amount of detail that goes into developing the curriculum and maintaining high standards of learning are second to none in the School of Medicine.

 

Tell us about your life outside of Vanderbilt. 

Family, music, and baseball are my life and love.  I’m coming up on twenty years of marriage on July 4th and my wife and I have two boys.  During the Spring and Fall baseball season, you’ll find me coaching both of my kids most days during the week.  I’m a big fan of the game. I'm from East St. Louis, IL; which is in the St. Louis area, and both of my sons’ teams are named “Cardinals”--  Go Cardinals! 

My other hobby is playing and teaching music.  I play the trombone, tuba, baritone, and piano.  I play with a big band and a cover band.  You can catch me playing, scatting, and improvising around town. 

I also give my nephew private lessons on trombone, as well as teach my sons about music theory, singing and playing.  During our commute to school each Monday through Thursday I spend the first 10-15 minutes reviewing and by now they know all of their scales and can sing and hear solfege without a piano.  

If you’re wondering why I don’t teach them on Friday, it’s because one day they asked, “Dad, do you mind if we don’t do this on Friday?”   They’ll thank me later, right?  My oldest is playing bassoon and my youngest is working on trumpet. 

 

Finally, what is something fun or quirky that most of your colleagues still don't know about you? 

I played in President Clinton’s inaugural parade with Tennessee State University’s Aristocrat of Bands. It was cold and that parade was the first time that I marched with an upright baritone.  By the end of the parade my whole chest cavity was sore; that upright baritone is not for the faint of heart.