Real Voices interview: Vicky Peterkin

Senior biostatistician at a pharmaceutical company

What do you do?

I work as a statistician in the pharmaceutical industry, specialising in clinical trials for new treatments. How do you use statistics in your job? To ﬁnd out whether the drug we’re testing signiﬁcantly improves a measurement of interest compared with a control drug. For example, if we’re testing a new drug to treat high blood pressure, the measurement of interest might be the change in blood pressure since starting treatment; however, it’s not enough to just look at the mean blood pressure change in each treatment group. We need to adjust for other information (such as age and weight) and show whether the diﬀerence is statistically signiﬁcant.

Why is that?

Adjusting for other information ensures that any diﬀerences between the treatment group results are due to the drug, not due to diﬀerences in disease severity and demographics. Statistical signiﬁcance indicates that the size of the diﬀerence between treatment groups is too big to have occurred by chance and must be due to the treatments.

What is a p-value?

When we run a statistical test, we get a p-value at the end. It shows the statistical signiﬁcance – the degree to which we can be certain that the eﬀects we see are due to our drug, rather than chance. It’s the key piece of information we want from the trial. It tells us whether the drug is useful and whether we should carry on researching it. That’s what I love about statistics: you can boil a huge amount of information down to a single, clear, yes-or-no decision.

Why might people be wary of maths?

I think people imagine statisticians sit at a computer working on their own all day. In my job that’s just not the case. I’m involved at every stage of a clinical trial – I help design it, check the data quality while it’s running and analyse it all at the end – and I work closely with medics, scientists and trial monitors on a daily basis.

What training do you have?

I studied maths at university, then a Master’s in statistics. There’s a lot of on-the-job training, too. I think students need to be exposed to statistics at an earlier age, so they can see for themselves how useful it is. The industry is in desperate need of young statisticians. You can become involved in important trials very quickly, and your opinion is highly valued.