Felix Pabon-Rodriguez is five years into the University of Iowa’s biostatistics doctoral program (housed in the College of Public Health), but until he was enrolled in a master’s program in Puerto Rico, he was not aware of the field. “I knew there was biology, statistics and mathematics, and I really loved all of those areas separately, but I didn’t know there was a specific field in biostatistics,” he clarified. As luck would have it, while pursuing his master’s degree in Statistics, he had to choose a concentration. It was then that his professors made him aware of the Biostatistics field, which set him on a path that would ultimately bring him to Iowa.
As Pabon-Rodriguez describes it, Biostatistics is “the application of mathematics, computing, and statistics into biomedical, real-life problems. Basically, we help researchers in the biomedical fields to study public health issues that are currently happening, or that have happened but we want to explore it in detail.” The current COVID-19 pandemic is one such public health issue. Even though Pabon-Rodriguez’s doctoral project, which models infectious disease progression, is not directly focused on the pandemic, its broad usage means he could hypothetically employ it to model COVID-19 as well. “Being able to work on something I really love, with computing and statistics, and trying to provide new insights into what is currently happening motivates me to continue this work. It’s basically the need to help people, society, and researchers, because I know there are so many infectious diseases and public health issues that need our attention,” he explained.
Although he wasn’t familiar with biostatistics until graduate school, Pabon-Rodriguez was familiar with the University of Iowa, thanks to Professor Gideon Zamba. Dr. Zamba, a professor of biostatistics and director of the Iowa Summer Institute in Biostatistics (ISIB) program, regularly visits Puerto Rico to recruit students to the program. In fact, even before Pabon-Rodriguez started his master’s program, Dr. Zamba encouraged him to attend the University of Iowa for graduate school, but he ultimately chose to stay in Puerto Rico because of his concerns about language barriers.
Once enrolled in his master’s program in Puerto Rico, Pabon-Rodriguez took Dr. Zamba up on his offer and attended the seven-week summer ISIB program in 2017, which blends case-based instruction of real biomedical research, computer laboratory training, research projects, and clinical and translational research enrichment activities. “I applied to the [ISIB] program here in Iowa to check out the state and to have an experience with the department and the university. That’s when I knew that I really loved the environment and the faculty, and after this experience, I decided to apply to the PhD program,” he shared.
After arriving in Iowa for the doctoral program in 2018, Pabon-Rodriguez had to learn English at the same time as learning biostatistics, an expected but still challenging situation. If he were to give his past self any advice, it would be to take advantage of the university’s programs for international students tasked with learning English, be it through courses or other non-academic opportunities (such as the Speaking and Conversation Centers). “I took on the challenge of trying to learn by myself, watching videos, working on the internet, and watching movies with the subtitles so I could improve my language skills,” he recalls.
He also found help in a surprising place. “One international faculty member in the statistics department offered me to practice English with him. He also mentioned his experience struggling with the language. Listening to that experience of a faculty member who is teaching right now and knowing that I can relate to him in that sense is amazing.” Given that Pabon-Rodriguez hopes to eventually work in academia in a role with a teaching component, the possibility of being a comparable mentor for future students is incredibly appealing.
In the meantime, he’s already making a significant impact with his current project, which uses longitudinal models to study how and why infectious diseases progress and the relationship between microbes that cause infection and host’s immune system. “We use molecular diagnostic and clinical data coming from clinicians and veterinarians, and constructed a model that will help understand responses for particular disease progression and immune responses of several subjects, over time,” he explained.
As Pabon-Rodriguez’s mentor, Dr. Grant Brown, explains, “Felix is really great at taking complex ideas and breaking them down into components we can work with, which has allowed him to model pathogens across hugely different scales. Parts of his research focus on the immunological responses to pathogens, and the progression of clinical disease—components which are incredibly complex and often very difficult to measure or fully characterize. At the opposite end of the spectrum, part of his research focuses on the interaction of vector, reservoir, and host species in an ecological setting. Finding statistical models which are simple enough to be practical, but flexible enough to capture important facts about the processes of interest, is a key skill at which Felix excels.”
Pabon-Rodriguez’s project focuses on the microbe that causes Lyme Disease, which is transmitted by ticks, and Visceral Leishmaniasis, a potentially fatal infection transmitted by sand flies that currently has no human-approved vaccine. “If you don’t receive any treatment or intervention to help control Leishmania, the fatality rate for Visceral Leishmaniasis can be as high as 100% within two years. I’m studying [Visceral Leishmaniasis] because I want to explore how we can improve the understanding of immune responses in the host in order to control or diminish the microbe and the progression of the disease,” he said. For Lyme Disease, on the other hand, the project examines the role of reservoir-targeted vaccines, which work by blocking disease transmission via the tick directly.
Regardless of the infectious diseases he currently studies, Pabon-Rodriguez is excited about the model’s broad application. He clarified, “The model is defined in a simplest way so anyone can understand and use it, but at the same time, some underlying mechanisms of the immune system are still unclear, leading us to continue working on it. I know that my work can help expand that knowledge and provide more insights into immunological responses to microbes.”
As with his model, Pabon-Rodriguez has developed an appreciation for the broad application of his studies more generally. “There is always the thought that mathematics and statistics at some point are not useful or applicable to all of the fields, but over time, we continue learning that they can be involved in any kind of situation, not only public health issues,” he explained. “I think that my research can be an example of one thing helping to study and solve innumerable issues.”