Accidental Mathematician

By Jennifer Davies

Biostatistics is a precise science—one that relies on applying the tools of statistics to all facets of biology and medicine to uncover insights into the health sciences. So you might think that Ronghui (Lily) Xu, an accomplished biostatistician at UC San Diego with joint appointments at the School of Medicine and the Department of Mathematics, would have applied that same type of precision when it came to planning and navigating her career.

But nothing could be further from the truth, Xu said with a laugh.

“Oh no, I feel life is full of surprises,” she said. “That’s probably because I am more of an accidental mathematician.”

Xu explained that her decision to study math at all was a bit of a fluke. While in high school, Xu won a mathematics competition that guaranteed her admission and a scholarship to Nankai University in her native China.

“I was never sure about mathematics,” she said. “But I was 17, so I was, like, ‘Yeah, sure.’”

Accidental or not, Xu has certainly made her mark on the field of biostatistics, with significant contributions in such areas as survival data, evaluating cancer clinical trials, and other medical research inquiries. The American Statistical Association, the preeminent professional statistical society, even recognized her for her work, naming her as a fellow in 2013.

Xu also has used her expertise to assist UC San Diego Extension to develop and shape its successful biostatistics certificate program, which includes courses on programming as well as deep dives into the methods of biostatistics.
For Xu, partnering with UC San Diego Extension on its biostatistics curriculum is important because it extends the knowledge of the university to the larger community and helps people train for and obtain the needed skills for the region’s most in-demand jobs.

“I’ve always thought of Extension as a kind of interface with the community. That’s why it’s called Extension,” she said. “Extension is very good at business analysis before they embark on some program, and that is quite impressive. These programs help people become more educated in their daily work and help them understand data or methods related to data.”

There is no question that biostatistics continues to be a growing field, especially in San Diego, with its heavy concentration of biotech and life science companies. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for statisticians will grow by 34 percent between 2014 and 2024, much higher than the average for other occupations. Burning Glass, a labor market research firm, also recently found that there has been an increase in the demand for biostatisticians as the growth of big data converges with the health-care field. In California alone, there are as many as 1,000 job openings for biostatisticians annually.

“We are using big data for everything,” Xu said. “We use it to predict cancer versus non-cancer mortality, and that’s directly useful. It is also a demonstration project for how to use electronic health data to do clinical decision-making.”

It was actually the hot job market in biostatistics that set Xu on her career path. After college, she decided to come to UC San Diego for her PhD for convenience—there were no tests required—and because of all that San Diego had to offer.

“I kind of picked it partially for the location,” she said with a shrug.

While Xu makes it sound like her studies and career were all happenstance, there was one thing she was sure of: theoretical math was not for her. The daughter of engineers, Xu knew she wanted to do applied math in a field where she could make an impact. She chose statistics and biostatistics in particular because of the job opportunities.

“At the time, honestly I didn’t know what I was going to do, but the senior students advised me to look at biostatistics because the job market was really good. That’s back in ’92, and it is still so today,” Xu said. “Back then, if you graduated with just a stats degree, it was pretty hard to get a job, but biostatistics was wanted everywhere.”

Xu was able to take her biostatistics expertise to Harvard University, where she worked for seven years on a variety of studies, including work on cancer survival rates. She loved her time at Harvard because it was fulfilling professionally and Xu also loved the pace of Boston.

“It’s a very exciting place because Boston has lots of people coming through the town.”

She added that Harvard has one of the largest biostatistics departments, “so you have literally over a dozen seminars a week” from which you can choose to attend.

She decided to return to UC San Diego in 2004 for personal and professional reasons. One of her first tasks was to help create the university’s PhD in biostatistics. Although it took almost a decade to get the program approved, Xu also spent that time teaching and overseeing a team of researchers and biostatisticians on a wide variety of issues: from pregnancy to the impact of radiation on cancer.

Going forward, Xu said she sees continued growth in biostatistics as more health data can be collected, curated, and analyzed. How exactly will the field change? Xu, ever the accidental mathematician, is unsure.

“I think it’s more or less a continuum. I’ve been in this field for 20 years now— almost from the beginning,” she said. “What’s going to happen 20 years from now: that’s harder to predict.”

Learn more about the Extension Biostatistics specialized certificate program as well as related courses on our website, or contact the program manager at or 858-534-9358.

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