Spotlight on Vanderbilt Biostatistics: Jennifer Thompson

For our next featured member in the Spotlight  series, we talked to Jennifer Thompson, a Biostatistician IV in the Vanderbilt Department of Biostatistics, to learn more about her research and outside interests.  Read on and enjoy!

What is the focus of your research and what have been the major findings so far?
My primary work so far has been with the Vanderbilt Center for Critical Illness, Brain Dysfunction and Survivorship. We work to describe, understand, and improve in-hospital and long-term outcomes among patients and families who experience acute critical illness. The center currently has about ten principal investigators and an incredible support team, all doing multidisciplinary work in pulmonary/critical care, anesthesiology, psychiatry, trauma, and palliative care research.

In 2013, we published an NIH-funded cohort study which described the huge burden of cognitive impairment among survivors of critical illness and how brain dysfunction during that illness is a risk factor for worse outcomes. We are currently working on R01 grants which look at the efficacy of medications used to treat delirium in the ICU, and outcomes for the use of different sedatives in ICU patients.

We have also worked to understand the mechanisms and phenotypes of delirium in the medical and surgical ICUs, to characterize and look for risk factors for brain dysfunction in trauma patients, and look for predictors of frailty and long-term functional and cognitive problems in ICU survivors so that we can try to modify our care and improve their experiences.

What was your draw to statistics and what lessons have you learned from being a biostatistician?
I'm analytical and practical by nature, and declared a math major in college without too much thought as to what I would do after graduation. I was exposed to biostatistics through a summer internship at TVA (of all places!), and realized it would be a perfect way to apply my analytic skills to important problems. After I finished my master's at UNC-Chapel Hill, Vanderbilt was hiring and I was able to move back to Tennessee, my home state.

The lessons I've learned over the years have been enormous! Of course my statistical knowledge has grown immensely, but I've also learned how to manage timelines and projects and personalities, and to communicate with all kinds of people - some of whom care deeply about the statistical details, and some of whom care not at all. :) I love being part of a team that truly works together to solve important problems, and biostatistics and my work here has been a great way to do that.

What is your best advice for aspiring statisticians?
My best advice is to have a mindset that is open to continually learning new things, both about data science/statistics and the subject area you're working with. It didn't take me long out of graduate school to realize how little I didn't know yet! And with statistics and clinical research in general constantly evolving, you'll never be finished, which is a little overwhelming but also really exciting.

Also, I cannot overemphasize how important communication is to this field. Your statistical theory means nothing to a clinical researcher if you can't explain what the numbers and Greek letters actually mean - and in a way that you and they can then explain to their clinical colleagues so that your work can actually make an impact. Sometimes this looks like just writing an email or speaking up in a meeting; sometimes it's creating a clear, concise data visualization that gets your message across better than three paragraphs of a Results section ever could. Often it will be both.

What makes Vanderbilt special in your experiences of collaborating with others?
One thing I so appreciate about the group I work with is that my statistical teammates and I are considered to be part of the team, rather than technical consultants who hit a few buttons and give them some numbers to plug into their manuscript. That has so much benefit for both sides, and serves to not only make my work life more fulfilling, but also to make the science better.

I'm really excited about current movement in the direction of openness and transparency in research. It's been a bit slow going in clinical arenas compared to other areas, given the hugely important concerns about patient privacy as well as other considerations, but I hope that it will soon be expected practice to share analytical code, make statistical analysis plans obviously and transparently available, etc.

Tell us about your life outside of Vanderbilt.
I love to both travel as often as I can (most recently to Japan!), and have Nashville as a home base - this is such a great city undergoing so much transition right now, and I'm excited to be here to watch and participate in it. I'm lucky enough to also live close to five nieces and nephews who get as much of my attention as they'll allow.  Outside of work, I'll often be found hiking in one of the parks around town, spending time with my friends and community here, watching movies at the Belcourt or seeing just about anyone at the Ryman.

Finally, what is something about you that most people at Vanderbilt still don't know about you? 
I didn't see the original Star Wars movies until 2010, when I was unexpectedly snowed in with my family for Christmas and we watched the entire series in a SyFy marathon.