STATISTICS is a subject that many dread. It’s either you get it or you don’t — all that measuring and evaluating of data.
But there is more to statistics than just numbers. Statistics, at its disciplinary core, is the science of understanding data. Qualitative data and quantitative data are both types of information that statistics help us analyse, process and use.
University of Nottingham Malaysia associate professor and researcher in statistics Dr. Ho Weang Kee, 35, is putting her expertise in the field and applying it to the development
of a risk prediction model for breast cancer, which uses DNA and lifestyle information to
identify those at risk of the cancer for early detection.
Having had her primary and secondary education in public schools in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, Ho did her degree and completed her PhD in the area of missing data in longitudinal and survival studies at Newcastle University in United Kingdom.
Her first post-doctoral research position was on a National Institute for Health Research Project that aimed to bring advanced methodology to the area of child speech and language development, and to help train health professionals in the use of statistical methods.
She was then appointed to a post-doctoral position as a medical/genetic statistician at University of Cambridge where she worked on genetic and biomarkers for cardiovascular disease based on large electronic record databases. She joined the Department of Applied Mathematics at Nottingham University, Malaysia Campus in June 2013.
“I use statistics to answer biologically important questions. When I looked at children with hearing problems, for example, the question I sought answer for is what are the predictors that can forecast their speech and language development in the future. Since moving back to Malaysia four years ago and joining University of Nottingham Malaysia, I had the chance to collaborate with Cancer Research Malaysia and that’s where the whole cancer research started,” she said.
Ho said breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide.
In Malaysia, approximately one in 20 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. “Breast cancer if detected early can be cured, the five year survival rate of Stage 1 breast cancer patients is up to 98 per cent. One way to enable early detection of breast cancer is through screening, but we cannot afford to screen every women in the country. Presently, women above the age of 50 years old are encouraged to get a mammogram, but nearly half of the breast cancer patients diagnosed were below the age of 50 year old.
“This toolkit I am working on will optimise current breast cancer screening strategies by stratifying the population according to the likelihood of getting breast cancer. Those at high risk, will then be screened at a younger age and more often than those below the average risk category. This process will therefore optimally utilise healthcare resources and minimise the risk of breast cancer from occurring,” she said.
How this is done is to look at the data generated from blood samples in labs and identify which genetic marker is associated with breast cancer risks, said Ho. From there risk prediction model for breast cancer is developed.
Her research is being conducted in collaboration with Cancer Research Malaysia, University Malaya, National University of Singapore, Vanderbilt University Medical Centre, USA and University of Cambridge. The project is funded by a Newton-Ungku Omar fund through the Medical Research Council, UK and Academy of Science Malaysia.
And for her work, Ho recently won the L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Fellowship, which comes with a RM30,000 grant for her research.
“As a statistician and a breast cancer researcher, my aspiration is to contribute to the development of models that could make a real difference to other peoples lives. As a teacher, my aspiration is to inspire students to pursue STEM - we need more people to tackle the never-ending stream of problems we face in the world that we live in,” she said.
Meanwhile, she explained that her foray into science is purely accidental. “I did not set out to be a scientist. I was lucky to have parents who told me I could be anything. My career aspirations evolved from being a kindergarten teacher, then to become a tuition teacher and finally my passion for numbers which led to a PhD in Math so I could teach. It was during my PhD study that my passion for science was ignited. I realised that I could use Math to solve many important scientific questions,” she remarked.
In her acceptance speech at the L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Fellowship, Ho said that her life changed when she became a mother. She started breastfeeding, which is a special milestone in most women’s lives. Initially she did not think that she was exposed to the risk of breast cancer as her family did not have a history while she herself led a healthy lifestyle.
However, when she studied the subject more closely, she realised that women like her are still at risk of the disease and this motivated her to conduct in-depth research.
“I am really honoured to receive this prestigious award and would like to thank my family, my research collaborators and the colleagues at Cancer Research Malaysia, University of Malaya, National University of Singapore, University of Cambridge, Vanderbilt University Medical Centre and the University of Nottingham. I am humbled by this opportunity to contribute to the development of models that can impact the lives of women in Malaysia,” Ho said.
Ho is the first L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Fellowship recipient in Malaysia from a private university.
There were two other winners of the award: both from the School of Mathematical Science at Universiti Sains Malaysia — Dr. Jasy Liew Suet Yan, 32, a lecturer who is building a system that detects signs of depression by analysing emotional patterns on social media and Dr. Teh Su Yean, 36, an associate professor who is building a model that will conserve groundwater, which may become crucial when other water source are depleted due to global climate change.