Statistical Society of Australia Pitman Medal

2018 saw Louise Ryan awarded the prestigious Pitman Medal by the Statistical Society of Australia.

Aurore Delaigle
  • University of Technology Sydney

Biostatistics for better health and safety

Professor Louise Ryan from University of Technology Sydney is a biostatician who has dedicated her career to unravelling health conundrums.

Many questions in medicine and health science have no firm answers despite extensive research, frustrating policymakers and patients alike.

Louise believes cross-disciplinary research offers ways to manage this uncertainty. She has developed new methods to make sense of messy data in a range of situations, such as cancer treatments and the impacts of different drugs and environmental exposures during pregnancy.

In one project, Louise analysed data from many studies related to chorionic villus sampling, a prenatal test for genetic abnormalities. She found that the test itself can slightly increase the risk of deformities if conducted too early in pregnancy.

In another, working as part of a panel convened by the US National Academy of Science, her analysis helped confirm the adverse impacts on babies when pregnant mothers consume fish contaminated with methyl mercury. This work led to tighter regulations of coal-fired power plants (the major source of the mercury) across the USA.

Louise's work on health-related problems continues. She is currently working with developmental psychologists to more effectively understand and characterise the effects on children exposed to low levels of alcohol while in the womb.

"Child cognition is typically very hard to measure," she says.

Our project is bringing together data from multiple cohorts and multiple different tests to increase the power to detect real effects and improve treatments.

Louise's lifelong focus of using maths and statistics to improve human health was borne from her experience growing up with a sibling with a disability. Through the challenging situation she discovered, as a four-year-old, that maths offered more than a way to pass the time.

"My mum would need me to be self-sufficient while she helped my brother so she would set me up with puzzle books and music," says Louise.

"What I discovered was that numbers really interested me, calmed me, soothed me," she says.

"As I got older, I always found that with maths and especially statistics. I enjoyed finding patterns. The world is messy and chaotic, but we need ways to find the patterns to deal with uncertainty, as in environmental health," says Louise.

Louise has had an outstanding career, including mentoring of young researchers, which saw her awarded Pitman Medal, but it is the recognition of her work that truly excites her.

"I thought it was fantastic that they gave it to me, since it shows a growing appreciation of the kind of work I do, which blends theory and applications to solve important real-world problems," says Louise.

Louise is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and the American Statistical Association. She is also currently working with the NSW Office of the Chief Scientist and Engineer on more effective decision making under uncertainty.