Professor Helps Advance Health Science Using Biostatistics
May 28, 2013
By applying statistics to genetics, Dr. Swati Biswas is aiding efforts to analyze the human genetic code for clues to fighting disease.
Dr. Swati Biswas
“In the past few years, there has been explosive growth in the amount and complexity of genetic data scientists can gather, and many challenging questions are emerging,” said Biswas, a biostatistician who recently joined the UT Dallas faculty as an assistant professor of mathematical sciences.
The human genome, or DNA, contains about 20,000 or more genes that play a role in determining everything from hair color to cancer risk. Each gene varies from person to person, and some very rare variations are of particular interest to geneticists and biologists. Identifying rare variants may hold the key to understanding what causes many common diseases, which in turn could provide clues to how to prevent or treat them.
Increasingly researchers are using advanced gene-sequencing technology and statistics to tease out the details of the human genome, searching through large amounts of data for associations between diseases and very rare genetic variants, as well as environmental factors that interact with rare variants to modify disease risk.
“I work on statistical methods for these types of problems,” Biswas said. “In recent work, my colleagues and I for the first time implicated a specific type of rare gene variant for age-related macular degeneration, an eye disease. I also work with a genetic risk prediction model called BRCAPRO, which estimates the probability that a woman carries genetic mutations in breast and ovarian cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. These women have a much higher risk of developing cancer, so it’s critical to identify them, and models such as BRCAPRO are useful for this purpose.”
Biswas and her collaborators have worked on improving this model, which is now in clinical use. She currently is developing simplified versions of BRCAPRO that could be used in primary care settings, where time and resources may be more limited than in genetic counseling facilities. Her research is funded in part by two recent grants from the National Institutes of Health.
Biswas earned her PhD in biostatistics at The Ohio State University and was a postdoctoral researcher at UT MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Prior to joining UT Dallas, she was an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
“I have been interested in mathematics since my early school days, partly due to the influence of my father, who also is a professor of statistics,” Biswas said. “That drove my career path. On the other hand, I also liked biology, and when I found out about biostatistics – again, thanks to my father – I decided this was the research direction I wanted to take.”
Biswas said UT Dallas’ continued growth, as well as the Department of Mathematical Sciences’ commitment to grow in biostatistics, were major factors in her decision to join the faculty.
“As a statistician, I enjoy collaboration, and it’s an important part of my job,” she said. “I look forward to working with researchers in other departments across campus.”
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