Jeff Joseph ’19 Joins Harvard Cancer Research Project

Jeff Joseph ’19, with Professor of Statistical Computing Marcello Pagano, holding his certificate of completion at Harvard.

“A teen went from playing soccer in the streets of a third-world country to attending a research program at Harvard in a seven-year span,” Jeff Joseph wrote in his application last winter for one of Bowdoin’s summertime fellowships. It certainly helped that as a boy growing up in Haiti, Joseph nurtured a passion for mathematics along with a love of soccer.

Joseph moved from Haiti to Florida when he was 12 and kept up both interests, eventually landing at Bowdoin. In the spring, he received notice that he had won a funded internship grant — the Peter Buck Student Internship Fund — from Bowdoin Career Planning to do biostatistics and epidemiology research at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health this summer.

Along with taking graduate-level classes at Harvard, Joseph helped a professor well-known in the biostatistics field, Rafael Irizarry, analyze two recent cancer studies. The dual studies, done independently of one another, tested the same cancer drugs to measure their impact on the growth of cell lines. Mysteriously, they produced contradictory results. “One professor suggested that maybe the difference was not due to the experiment but due to the way the results were reported,” Joseph explained.

Indeed, when the team of biostaticians, including Joseph, began to look more closely at the data, they realized that there were inconsistencies in the way the two studies reported the amount of drug used to shrink and kill cancer cells. And if these amounts were reconciled mathematically, “you could see more agreement between the two studies,” Joseph said.

Jeff Joseph, left, giving a presentation this summer at the Summer Program in Biostatistics and Computational Biology at Harvard.

Joseph, who is an economics and math major and Italian studies minor, said the summer at Harvard reinforced his desire to go to graduate school, most likely in biostatistics. Biostatistics is a relatively young academic field; even younger is the subfield of computational biology where Joseph has gotten his start. Joseph describes this work as basically the use of math to improve public health.

Additionally, Joseph pointed out that living in Boston was expensive, and the funded internship grant was “critical to making it possible.”

Now that the six-week Harvard program is finished, Joseph is working with Jack O’Brien, assistant professor of mathematics at Bowdoin, on strengthening his computational and coding skills to better prepare for graduate schools. When interviewed for this story, Joseph said he’s grateful to O’Brien for his mentorship. “He’s been wonderful, we talk about everything, and I am glad I took his classes,” he said. O’Brien teaches statistics, biostatistics, and probability.

After Bowdoin, Joseph said he aspires to earn a graduate degree in math at Harvard. “Maybe this is normal and expected of the average Bowdoin student,” he wrote in his application. “But when neither of your parents graduated high school, it is a pretty big deal whenever your name is associated with a world-renowned institution.”

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