Skip to Main Content

4 longtime biostatistics professors look back on their years at YSPH

December 12, 2022
by Fran Fried

The Yale School of Public Health’s Department of Biostatistics is experiencing the end of an era. Four senior faculty representing more than 120 years of teaching and research experience have either recently retired or soon will retire. The work of these distinguished leaders in biostatistics at Yale – Robert Makuch, Theodore Holford, Peter Peduzzi, and Daniel Zelterman - helped define the department as it exists today. Their scholarship, research, and practice advanced public health and have had an immeasurable effect on countless YSPH students working toward their MPH degrees. Below are brief summaries of each professor’s contributions during their time at YSPH.

Robert Makuch

Robert Makuch came to Yale as a graduate student in 1974 after receiving his MA in mathematics at the University of Washington. He earned his MPhil in biostatistics at Yale in 1976, followed by his PhD the next year. He returned to Yale in 1986 as a professor of biostatistics. He currently serves as director of the Yale School of Public Health’s Regulatory Affairs Track.

Following his years of study at Yale, and into his professorship at YSPH, Makuch established himself as a research scientist. He worked at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and, for a six-month stint, at the National Cancer Research Center in Tokyo. He was also involved in HIV research from the mid-1980s through the mid-’90s and was a member of the data monitoring committee for the original AZT vs. placebo randomized clinical trial in AIDS patients. He also served on numerous committees for the NCI and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and worked closely with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, developing and implementing more than 200 HIV studies. He also served as a Special Government Employee (SGE) at the FDA.

Makuch said his greatest accomplishments have been his contributions to clinical trial methodology, including creating and establishing the notion of non-inferiority studies beginning in 1979. He also trained all senior members of the Chinese Food and Drug Administration over a 10-year period, leading to the establishment and acceptance of global regulatory affairs science in China.

Among the many memories Makuch has accumulated during his 36 years at YSPH, he cites two as most profound. The first is the promotion of Professor Heping Zhang to a tenured position. Zhang blossomed to become a world-renowned leader in biostatistics and statistics.

His second is being informed that Sir Richard Peto wrote a letter in support of his own tenure at Yale. Peto is a renowned statistician and epidemiologist and a professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at the University of Oxford who received an honorary Doctor of Medical Sciences degree from Yale in 2011. He was knighted in 1999 for his work with epidemiology and cancer prevention, especially in reducing smoking deaths.

Makuch plans to retire in June 2024. But he doesn’t plan to stop working. “My plans are to continue teaching at the university level,” he said. “I also have a goal to develop regulatory affairs training programs in South America.”

Theodore Holford

Technically, Theodore Holford isn’t fully retired. The Susan Dwight Bliss Professor Emeritus of Biostatistics is still working at the Yale School of Public Health as a senior research scientist.

“My work is funded by my NIH research grants supporting work on population models for tobacco exposure,” Holford said. “This work involves not only colleagues at Yale, but also a group of researchers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. At present, I am half-time, but that could change.”

Holford, PhD ’73 (Biometry), MPhil ’71, began teaching at YSPH in 1973 and became emeritus in 2020. The fact that his doctorate was in biometry highlights one of the big changes at YSPH during his time here – the name of his group. “I got my degree in the Biometry Division, which remained for several years after I became a faculty member,” he said. “The change to the Biostatistics Division and now the Department of Biostatistics was important in giving better identity to the direction of our work.”

Another huge change is much more recent: “Another major change during my time at Yale has been the evolution from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health in the Yale School of Medicine (it is important to note that public health was not the first thing that we did), to being on the cusp of becoming a free-standing school of public health,” he said.

“It has been my privilege to have outstanding colleagues that have given me the opportunity to join them in interesting work,” Holford said.

He cited three major accomplishments in his time at the school.

One was clinical trials, beginning with his first job as a research assistant for the Committee for the Assessment of Biometric Aspects of Controlled Trials of Hypoglycemic Agents, led by Dr. Colin White, a prominent Yale biostatistician. “This was essentially a review of the University Group Diabetes Program, an early multicenter trial that was controversial at the time because a drug commonly used was found to increase risk of death due to cardiovascular disease, a condition it was intended to prevent,” he explained. Later, he collaborated with Professor Michael Bracken on the National Acute Spinal Cord Injury Study, identifying the first drug that was effective in the treatment of spinal cord injuries. The investigators were given the Wakemen Award for Neuroscience Research in recognition of this achievement. “An additional benefit for me,” he said, “was that these collaborations led to methodological work for my own research.”

Another achievement, he said, was his extensive collaboration with the epidemiology faculty, which has also led to “some interesting statistical problems, including the analysis of matched pair designs, survival analysis, and models for the distribution of traffic related to air pollution.”

The third is his latest interest – developing population models for tobacco, for which he has an NCI research grant for the Cancer Intervention and Modeling Network. These models have been used to quantify the effect of cigarette smoking on health in the U.S. as well as to assess the effectiveness of public health measures to control diseases affected by this exposure.

“The model that I developed has recently been expanded to consider detail in tobacco exposure disparities by race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education, and state,” Holford said. “In addition, it has been used in Canada, and we are currently completing work using this approach in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina.”

These wide-ranging studies have had left an indelible memory with Holford.

“The effort to understand the world around us, including the health of the public, has had a profound effect on my work,” he said. “Competition can get in the way of collegiality, but for the most part, I have been fortunate to work with groups in which each one contributes to a common goal. It has been a pleasure to find a group like that at YSPH.”

Peter Peduzzi

Yale was never far from Peter Peduzzi’s mind or his geographical location.

Peduzzi, a professor emeritus of biostatistics and senior research scientist of biostatistics, earned his PhD in biometry from Yale in 1976, after receiving his MS in industrial engineering/operations research at the University of Rhode Island. He remained in the area after graduation, working for 34 years at the VA Cooperative Studies Program Coordinating Center in West Haven, where he directed the program for 12 of those years. And for 21 of those years, he also taught at YSPH – 12 years as ladder-track faculty, nine years as an adjunct – before retiring at the end of June 2021.

In 2010, Peduzzi become the founding director of the Yale Center for Analytical Sciences (YCAS). “I was recruited by Yale to set up such a center,” he said. It would become his crowning achievement. During his time at the helm, YCAS grew to be a major center at Yale for both methodology development and collaborative research in all aspects of biomedical research, with more than 40 faculty and staff. YCAS also trains graduate students in biostatistics, as well as high school students who are interested in pursuing a career in data science.

Building YCAS into a major center is the most profound memory Peduzzi has from his time at YSPH. “It was a collective effort with some impressive colleagues,” he said. Looking back at how YSPH changed during his tenure, Peduzzi said: “The number of students has dramatically increased, along with the number of biostatistics faculty.”

Now that he is retired, Peduzzi said he is working part-time on a few of his own grants and spending more time with his family and grandchildren.

Daniel Zelterman

Daniel Zelterman received his PhD in statistics from Yale in 1983. He then served on the faculty at SUNY/Albany and the University of Minnesota before returning to Yale in 1995 as a biostatistics professor in the School of Public Health. He has been a professor emeritus since 2020.

The Yale School of Public Health that existed when Zelterman began teaching was a far cry from what it is now, he said.

“The Department of Biostatistics has grown in terms of students, faculty, office space, and a variety of different projects we are working on,” Zelterman said. “I owe special thanks to (former dean) Paul Cleary and (former chair) Hongyu Zhao for making this happen.”

Most of his 25 years, he said, were spent teaching Biostatistics 505b, for which he found a method to keep things interesting in what can be a dry field. “I also wrote a book for this course,” he said. “The course had many funny and weird examples to keep the topics interesting. You need to do this to keep things moving along in an 8:30 a.m. course.”

In all, Zelterman wrote six books “and a lot of journal articles” on biostatistics while at YSPH. One article that he was particularly proud of described ways to examine clusters of disease cases within the same family. “Children get asthma, cancer, polio, and so on,” he said. “Chang Yu (my former PhD student at Yale) and I described how this affects the risks of their siblings.”

Following retirement, Zelterman and his wife, Beth, moved to Vermont, where they enjoy the outdoors. An accomplished oboist and bassoonist, Zelterman plays bassoon in two orchestras there. And academia and research still play huge roles in his life.

“I have written two more books and several journal articles,” he said. “I have been participating in Zoom meetings with colleagues. We have a grant from Takeda supporting our development of clinical trial methods. Together, we have written several papers on clinical trial design and climate change. We showed climate change can be clearly demonstrated with some of the methods I taught in Biostatistics 505b.”

Submitted by Colin Poitras on December 12, 2022