Spotlight on Vanderbilt Biostatistics: Yuwei Zhu

Nick Shell
January 23, 2019

This week's Spotlight series features one of our great faculty members, Yuwei Zhu.  Read on to learn more about her impressive research with vaccine studies, and heed her advice for aspiring statisticians.  

What was your draw to statistics and/or Vanderbilt?  
Growing up, I always found math to be a riveting subject of study. As a college student in China, I eventually studied medicine instead, but I majored in preventive medicine which required additional courses in statistics and epidemiology, helping to nurture my interests in mathematics and statistics. 

After joining my husband in America, we lived in Binghamton, NY where it was cold ten months out of the year, so we decided to go to somewhere in the South for my graduate education. However, Houston, TX was also too hot for me so eventually, we decided to move to somewhere a bit less warm and Vanderbilt was a perfect fit. 

What have been some of the major findings so far in your research?  
One of my main research interests is influenza vaccine effectiveness. As a vaccine advocate and researcher, I have been involved in influenza surveillance since 1999 and have been an integral part of research groups like the New Vaccine Surveillance Network (NVSN), Clinical Immunization Safety Assessment (CISA), Vaccine & Treatment Evaluation Units (VTEU), and US Hospitalized Adult Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness Network (HAIVEN).  I also conduct data analyses to estimate disease burdens and influenza vaccine effectiveness (VE) by ED, outpatient and inpatient settings and by different age groups.  Our findings have provided scientific evidence for the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) to make vaccine recommendations. I have had papers published in the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, the Journal of Pediatrics, the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, and many others. Our next steps include studying household transmission of influenza viruses in the community and assessing the safety of quadrivalent, live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV4) versus quadrivalent inactivated influenza vaccine (IIV4) among certain risk populations such as children with persistent asthma.  

Other research I’ve done has included a large etiology of pneumonia in the community, which determined the burden of pneumonia hospitalizations in U.S. children and adults and identified viruses and bacteria associated with these hospitalizations. Manuscripts describing this study’s results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Based on this study, we have built a prediction model to estimate pneumonia severity among children and our next step is conducting clinical trials using electronic health record (EHR) data to validate our model. 

Tell us us about an impactful publication you have had.
I still remember my first New England Journal of Medicine paper published in 2006. It’s about the under-recognized burden of influenza in young children. In this paper, we estimated influenza rates by different medical settings.  Later, the influenza vaccine was recommended to >=  two years old rather than >= five years old among children after ACIP updated its guideline based on our results and other evidences. The recommendation helped me realize the importance of our study, the work we do, and its impact to the general population’s health. 

What lessons have you learned from being a biostatistician?
The most important lesson I learned during my 20 years working is that we need to keep updating our knowledge.  As you know, knowledge never stops accumulating, and we must work rigorously and tirelessly to make sure we’re keeping up with the newest, cutting-edge methods and techniques. Learning from colleagues, taking online courses, attending seminars and conferences regularly are great ways to continue education, which help us apply the most appropriate methods on projects.  

What is your best advice for aspiring statisticians?  
My best advice for aspiring statisticians is that the best statistician isn’t the one with the best technical skills. Being able to communicate properly and work alongside others is just as important. Statisticians need to be well rounded.

What is your secret to training up the next generation of statisticians?
I think I’m truly blessed because my MPH students tend to be very self-motivated in my experience. When it comes to teaching them, I strive to make sure that I’m as available as possible and offer them a variety of approaches and examples so that their learning is dynamic and memorable. I’m trying to provide them with an experience and education that goes beyond what somebody could find on a youtube video. Most of them value biostatistical support as a core part in their future research.  

Tell us about your life outside of Vanderbilt . . . your family, your hobbies and your future goals.
My husband and I have been married more than 25 years and we have two wonderful sons. My eldest son just graduated college and my younger son is currently enjoying his first year at college!  Growing up, my boys had dogs, birds, guinea pigs, rabbits, saltwater and freshwater fish, and a turtle (which is the only still with us today). I enjoy reading novels, traveling and tasting food from around the world.  I also like having projects to do in my spare time. Currently, I’m trying to create a vegetable garden in my backyard. I’m also trying to participate more in local statistics or non-statistics events and maybe even write a book for my boys or their kids to know how we came to the States and lived. 

Finally, what is something about you that most people at Vanderbilt still don't know about you? (Until now, of course!) The first flight I ever flew on was the one that took me to America. I landed in Anchorage, Alaska!