Zihan Zheng

MS Capstone
Zhengzhou, Henan province, China

What led you to choose Biostatistics as your field of study? Are there any particular experiences, projects or moments that influenced your decision?

I am particularly interested in the intersection between public health and statistical methodologies. The beauty of biostatistics is its magic of transforming convoluted datasets into meaningful information that can help advance scientific understanding of diseases and shed light on potentially effective ways to improve health.

Why did you choose to attend UW? 

I had a rewarding four-year learning experience at UW prior to seeking a graduate degree. I loved almost everything about this university – attractive landscape, strong academic atmosphere, abundant extracurricular activities, culture of inclusiveness… I decided to pursue a higher educational degree in the place that I have profound emotional attachment with. It turns out that my decision was sensible.

How would you describe your experience as a UW Biostatistics student

In general, it is a very beneficial experience being a UW Biostatistics student. I don’t have much prior experience with statistics or programing before entering this program, so some of the courses are challenging to me. However, I learned huge amounts of valuable skills in data analysis, statistical modelling and inference with R. I have really enjoyed the fruitful learning process, and the skills I learned are critical for my future career.

Tell us more about your recent work on the Dog Aging Project, and how did you become involved with the project?

Our program advisor Minh Vo emailed us a list of potential research opportunities in Winter 2021, which included a project about companion dogs. I contacted Katie Kerr, the professor responsible for this project to express my interest. At the time, there were no vacant positions on the team, but the following quarter I received an email from Professor Kerr, inviting me to join the team.  The project aims to investigate the association between feeding frequency and cognitive & physical health. The project was in the very early stage when I was asked to join.

What type of work did you do for the study?

With instruction from Professor Kerr, I conducted the statistical analysis for the study, which includes but was not limited to cleaning and merging data, constructing new variables, performing the primary analysis, interpreting analytic results, and creating key tables and figures for publication.

What were the findings of the study, and how would you describe the benefits or use of the study data?

We found that feeding once per day is associated with better cognitive, dental, orthopedic, kidney/urinary, liver/pancreas, and gastrointestinal health. The findings are consistent with prior research on laboratory mice, suggesting that intermittent fasting/caloric restriction is associated with better cognitive and physical health. The study provides valuable insights into the impact of time-restricted feeding on health of companion dogs, and sets the stage for future studies to explore the biological mechanisms of the associations that we detected. However, given that the study is cross-sectional, and all data are reported by dog owners, causal inference cannot be drawn from the findings. Thus, we are not suggesting that people should adjust their dog-feeding behavior based on our results. Longitudinal studies in the future will have the potential to provide stronger evidence for the causal link between feeding frequency and health outcomes.

Read more about the Dog Aging Project

How would you describe your overall experience with the project?

It was a wonderful experience working with Professor Katie Kerr and other team members. I was impressed and inspired by their passion and conscientiousness. With a reasonable workload, I learned a lot of valuable skills in statistical modeling and inference. It was also very exciting to see the interesting results!

Did you learn any new skills, encounter any challenges or surprises, gain new insights, etc.?

Since information of study participants was dispersed in multiple datasets with different formats, it took a lot of efforts to extract useful information from various sources and merge them properly. In addition, it was kind of challenging to synthesize multiple pieces of information and use them to build new variables that can be directly included in our statistical model. However, I learned a lot of new skills throughout this project, including conditional logistic regression, natural spline model, heat map plots, as well as appropriate ways to report our findings to audience (through research paper, poster, PowerPoint presentation, etc). I view this research experience as a beneficial and fruitful learning process.

What are your future goals?

My career goal is to become a research fellow dedicated to improving human and animal health through extensive research effort. I hope to work with and learn from people who persistently strive to advancing scientific understanding of etiology of diseases, identifying effective means of prevention, and developing innovative therapeutic strategies.

What do you like most about living in Seattle?

I love the beautiful scenery in Seattle – mountain, lake, garden, greenery… The charming landscape always makes me relax and cheerful. Most people in this city are nice and friendly. Besides, the public transportation system is pretty convenient.

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

Don’t hesitate to actively reach out to department faculty to seek research/job opportunities. They genuinely care about students and hope to provide helpful resources for students’ success.

Learn more about the UW MS Capstone Program in Biostatistics.