Taylor Okonek

PhD student, Biostatistics
White Bear Lake, Minnesota

As the first person in her family to attend college, Taylor Okonek wants people to know that there are first-generation students in the field of biostatistics.

“I think sometimes people make assumptions about your background based on the fact that you’re in a biostatistics program simply because biostatistics is still a relatively obscure field and it can be difficult to learn about it without having parents or friends in academia,” says Okonek. “But first-generation students have as much to contribute to the field as third- or fourth-generation biostatisticians.”

Okonek talks about her higher education experience and life as a UW Biostatistics student.

What advice do you have for a student who is the first in their family to attend college/graduate school?

Surround yourself with people who encourage you and lift you up. As our program advisor Gitana Garofalo has said to me before, there is an “invisible curriculum” in graduate school for students from underrepresented backgrounds, and if you’re struggling to navigate this curriculum, it is important to have a network you can go to for help. Furthermore, it can be a little isolating to feel like you’re the only student without “professor parents” in your program. Know that you’re not alone, and that you deserve to be in your program just as much as any other student.

Speaking for myself, I think that it can be easy as a first-generation student to place a lot of additional pressure on yourself to succeed, and while this can be a great motivator, it certainly has its downsides. This pressure can also come from your family, and I’m not convinced that there’s one best way to handle this. Most importantly, be true to yourself and your own goals, and embrace your failures as well your successes.

On a practical note, Sherri Rose, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, has great resources on her website for statistics/biostatistics students from underrepresented and diverse backgrounds. While I haven’t personally combed through the website in depth, I know other students who have benefitted from these resources throughout their graduate school application process and beyond.

How did you find your way to Biostatistics?

My high school calculus teacher handed me a copy of Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise and told me to read it before I graduated. When I handed the book back to him at the end of my senior Spring, he told me I needed to take at least one statistics course in undergrad. I ended up taking almost every statistics course that St. Olaf had to offer. While at St. Olaf, I had three wonderful female statistics professors—two with degrees in biostatistics—who encouraged me to pursue the field.

Why did you choose UW?

I applied to UW because of the academic rigor, but I chose UW because of the people and the environment. I had a great experience meeting potential cohort-mates and professors at PhD student visit days. I knew that I wanted a supportive academic and social environment for my graduate school experience, and I really felt like I would find that here. The research that a good number of the faculty are doing here interested me as well, and the fact that Seattle has so many opportunities for outdoor extracurriculars certainly didn’t hurt.

How would you describe your experience as a UW Biostatistics student?

I feel like my experience as a UW Biostatistics student is continually evolving. My first year I really struggled with imposter syndrome and getting used to the quarter system, so I think perhaps the description for my experience early on could best be summed as “challenging.” That said, I think another word that could describe my experience here would be “supported.” Despite the challenges I had first-year, I really felt like the graduate program and fellow students had my back. As a second-year student, I feel like I’ve been able to navigate a decent amount of the challenges graduate students face upfront and have been able to relax a bit into more interesting coursework and research.

What kind of research are you doing?

I’m currently working with Jon Wakefield on developing methods for spatio-temporal modeling of HIV prevalence at a subnational level, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. We’re interested in studying higher-order interactions in the generalized linear mixed models frequently used in this field, particularly so that we can account for interactions between space, time, and age. Such interactions are important if we want estimates stratified by various covariates, and they pose some interesting methodological challenges in terms of constraints and computational tractability.

How would you describe the benefits of your research?

Health interventions are often made at a subnational level and resources with which to address viruses such as HIV are limited and can be quite costly. As such, we want to know where to target our limited resources in order to have the greatest impact. Towards this goal, my research aims to produce accurate estimates of HIV prevalence at a subnational level, as well as appropriate measures of uncertainty surrounding our estimates. We further aim to produce estimates stratified by various covariates—be that age, sex, etc.—in order to provide estimates on subpopulations that may be of interest to health workers, communities, and researchers.

What are your future goals?

Unknown! I’d like to stay in academia, but I haven’t decided yet what I want this to look like. I think it could be fun to teach at a liberal arts college similar to St. Olaf. I have vague ideas for an interdisciplinary course on statistical ethics and philosophy, and it would be fun to stretch some of the knowledge I acquired in my Bachelor of Arts in Religion again. On the other hand, I could see myself working as a research scientist and focusing less on teaching. I’m looking forward to getting some TA [teaching assistant] experience here at UW to help me narrow my options.

What advice would you give to a student who is considering a UW Biostatistics program?

I think the best advice I could give others (and myself) would be to not compare yourself to others in the program. This is something I need to tell myself constantly. It will often seem like other people are working harder, producing more impressive research, or simply performing better academically than you are, but I think it’s good to acknowledge that everyone gets through the program in a different way and sometimes at a different pace.

What extracurricular activities do you enjoy?

I worked at a climbing wall at St. Olaf, and I’ve enjoyed discovering some of the local climbing scene in Seattle. I also like cooking, although I’m not very good at it, and I would consider myself an avid knitter. I've made a few sweaters this past year and it's been a fun challenge. I also love yoga and hiking.

What do you like most about living in Seattle?

It’s hard to pick just one thing. I definitely love the proximity to the outdoors, the many, many dogs in Seattle that I see on my walks/runs around Green Lake, and the seafood.