University of Washington School of Public Health

Graduate Student Profile


Wei Ling (Katherine) Tan

Third-year PhD student, Biostatistics
Hometown: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Why did you choose the UW?

I wanted a program that was large enough so I could explore research options, rigorous enough so I could take very technical courses, and friendly enough so I wouldn’t be too scared to have fun.

Why did you choose Biostatistics?

I double majored in Applied Mathematics and Molecular Biology in college (at Johns Hopkins). When a mentor mentioned biostatistics, it struck me as the perfect path for my interests. I like that biostatistics bridges the gap between theoretical mathematics/statistics and real-world biomedical and public health problems.

What motivates you about public health?

Being able to reach large populations and have an impact through little nudges. I got into public health and biostatistics during an internship in Nepal. I worked on reducing infant mortality by administering a flu vaccine to expectant mothers. It was simple, cheap, but effective.

What kind of research are you doing?

I design and sample methods to better utilize Electronic Medical Records (EMRs). EMRs are computer databases that contain information about patient demographics, socioeconomic status, vitals and medical history. A lot of data in EMRs are “unstructured," or chunks of text that don’t fit into the more commonly known data types. There needs to be careful statistical thinking that goes into extracting information from these data so we can make meaningful claims.

Can you tell me about your passion for communicating science?

A professor once told me, “If you really understood your work, you should be able to explain it to your grandma.” The ability to distill a complex idea into simple sentences serves two purposes: 1) It tests your understanding as a researcher, and 2) It allows your ideas to actually be implemented in the real world.

Do you have any extracurricular activities or jobs?

I’m a mentor with Grads Guiding Grads and I’m part of a team piloting a mentoring program for first-year students within the Department of Biostatistics. I also volunteer with and mentor homeless youth in the University District through Street Youth Ministries. Aside from that, I hike a lot in the summer and swing dance the rest of the year.

What are your future goals?

I’d like to help bring statistical thinking into understanding complex, non-traditional biomedical data structures, such as text and imaging data. I’d love to be on an interdisciplinary team. I’m open to both academia and industry.

What do you like most about Seattle?

It has all the benefits of living in a big city, yet each neighborhood maintains its quirkiness that gives it the edge. I really like Fremont and Green Lake!

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