As a child Andrea S. Foulkes, Sc.D., solved math problems. “I did math at the dinner table,” she explained. “I came from a family of mathematicians.”
Foulkes now uses those quantitative reasoning skills in her role as Director of Biostatistics at Massachusetts General Hospital. One of her current projects is collecting and overseeing data from the NIH Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) studies created to support and enhance recovery for people experiencing the long-term effects of COVID-19, or long COVID.
Foulkes, who is also a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, simultaneously uses lessons from these types of analyses in the classroom.
“I love mentoring,” Foulkes said. She encourages students to think about how multiple factors can influence the outcomes of population health studies. Observational studies are particularly challenging because participants are not randomly assigned interventions.
“There are a lot of elements at play that make people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated different,” Foulkes said. Without accounting for those differences, such as considering underlying health conditions, studies can be misleading.
This is why Foulkes’ favorite part of her job is working with other scientists, who can add context to and further translate research findings. Foulkes uses this approach in many areas, but especially when studying underlying mechanisms of disease. For example, do infectious diseases cause other conditions or make underlying illness worse? Early in her career, she found people with HIV had chronic states of inflammation, which have now been linked with increased risks for cardiovascular disease.
Foulkes’ interest in public health started when she participated in a college study abroad program in Kenya. She worked at a Somali refugee camp and saw firsthand the impact of the refugee crisis, and the broader effects of famine. She also saw how research could make a difference. “Biostatistics was the perfect way to marry the math and more quantitative interests that I had with wanting to support global health efforts,” she said.
She later earned a Ph.D. in Biostatistics and now encourages early-stage investigators she works with to study what they are most interested in at the time. “If they follow their passions in each moment, they’ll end up in a place that they want to be.”