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While humanity wrings its collective hands about the antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” that are menacing hospitals around the world, Scott Evans ’88 is tackling the problem in the best way he knows how: through statistics.
For more than half a century, antibiotics have been effective at killing bacteria such as staph, strep, and e.coli, and at treating patients when they have infections of the respiratory system, skin, urinary tract, or blood. Antibiotics also provide the foundation for many medical procedures and strategies such as chemotherapy, surgery, neonate care, and ICU care. But with antibiotic use also comes antibiotic resistance. There have been outbreaks of “superbug” infections that are resistant to all antibiotics, and the pipeline for new antibiotics is sparse.
As senior research scientist in biostatistics at Harvard University, Evans leads a team of researchers who collaborate with infectious disease clinicians as part of the Antibiotic Resistance Leadership Group (ARLG) to reduce the public health threat of antibacterial resistance. He says this group consists of “… a lot of smart people with big hearts.” By evaluating treatment alternatives and new diagnostics, the ARLG can identify which bacteria are responsible for an infection and which antibiotics will be helpful during treatment. Current studies are evaluating new antibiotics and new ways to use old antibiotics. This work has broad impact across the field of medicine and positively affects people’s lives.
In 2015, Evans was named the Mosteller Statistician of the Year by the Boston Chapter of the American Statistical Association, which honors distinguished statisticians from academia, industry, and government who have made exceptional contributions to the field of statistics.
Evans, whose own family is a statistical anomaly for its sheer number of PSU connections, started his relationship with the University at a young age. His father, Richard “Dick” Evans ’64, was a faculty member in the mathematics department and his grandmother worked for many years in housekeeping on campus. His uncle John Connors ’65, and his sister Stephanie Wheeler ’99G also graduated from Plymouth State. While still a high school junior, Evans began taking math classes at Plymouth State after exhausting high school classes as part of an accelerated math program at Plymouth Area High School. His first course—calculus—was taught by William Roberts, who happened to be a good friend of his family. Evans also took courses in statistics and computer science while in high school. “I was very fortunate to benefit from such strong training at an early age,” he says.
Plymouth Magazine recently posed five questions to this award-winning statistician and PSU stalwart. The response yield was, we are pleased to report, 100 percent. –Emilie Coulter
PSU seems to be in the Evans family genes. What are some of your earliest memories of the University?
Plymouth State had a big impact on my life long before I was in college. I grew up in Plymouth (a “townie”) and for most of my life my father was a faculty member there. I had the opportunity to meet and interact with many people associated with Plymouth State as a young boy. These included my father’s faculty friends and colleagues such as Jim Hogan, John P. Clark ’71, ’73G, Manny (Manuel Marquez) Sterling, and Jim Smith. Barbara Dearborn ’60 (a faculty member in the mathematics department and the namesake for the Dearborn Golf Classic, which I avidly play every year with my father and friends) and her husband Denny ’56 were good friends of my grandparents. Ed and Marilyn Wixson, both mathematics department faculty members, visit my parents in Florida every winter. These people were active in the broader Plymouth community and were a positive influence on my life well before I was in college. Many of my grade school friends and classmates also had family members associated with Plymouth State. My father would also frequently take me and my sisters to play basketball or racquetball, or go swimming at the field house. We would also attend sporting events and performances at Plymouth State.
And now, thanks to all that early math exposure, you’re a biostatistician. Can you describe what you do?
A high-level definition of a biostatistician is a mathematician/statistician who conducts medical or public health research. It’s an exciting field, given the rapid evolution of science and the ever-increasing availability of data. I focus on clinical trials, the experiments conducted on people to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of medical interventions, and the accuracy of diagnostics.
What’s the greatest challenge in your job?
The biggest challenge is also one of the biggest enjoyments: learning new things. The world of science evolves rapidly. If you stop learning, you become old news. Staying motivated to learn new things is really important. But finding or prioritizing the time to learn them is a big challenge.
What does winning the Mosteller award mean to you?
There is an old African philosophy called Ubuntu that loosely translates to “I am who I am because of who we all are.” It means that we are all connected through the roots of the earth and thus we share in each other’s successes and failures. When I look at receiving this award, I think about all of the people (teachers, advisors, friends, and family) who helped me get to where I am. Many of these people are associated with Plymouth State. This is their award, too. All I did was take the last few steps.
The Mosteller award is named after Fred Mosteller, one of the most influential statisticians in history and the first recipient of the award in 1990. Recipients are selected based on contributions of significant applied and methodological research, excellence in teaching, and service and leadership to the profession of statistics. I am extremely humbled by this award, as the prior recipients are legendary statisticians such as Herman Chernoff, Marvin Zelen, and Don Rubin. It is very gratifying to be mentioned among them and to know that my colleagues appreciate my efforts.
What are you most proud of in your life so far?
Raising my parents. It’s hard raising parents these days. But the evidence suggests that my sisters and I have done pretty well!