I met Rickey Carter, Ph.D., in his glass-walled office on the Mayo Clinic Florida campus in June. From his desk, he can look out over the Health Sciences Research Department: desks and cubicles in orderly rows, like boats in a marina and humming with activity—activity he helps promote as vice chair of the Department of Health Sciences Research and the director of Mayo’s Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Research Design program.
Dr. Carter is like a ship’s navigator, but for research. He and his team in the Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Research Design program help investigators plot promising courses through uncharted waters. On occasion, the team helps rescue researchers trapped in data analysis doldrums.
“It’s all about growing Mayo research and keeping it moving forward,” says Dr. Carter.
Dr. Carter arrived at Mayo Clinic in 2009 with a mission: to help clinicians and scientists use the power of their research data to solve real-world problems for patients. He’s very passionate about his role as a biostatistics navigator and mentor. He’s also excited about the promise of the data-driven future of medicine. I sat down with him to ask for the scuttlebutt.
Your background is in math and statistics. What made you decide to take a leap into medical research?
I’ve seesawed between medicine and math my whole life. Early in life, I wanted to be a pediatrician. Then in high school and later in college I got interested in math. I thought about becoming a math teacher and I looked seriously at actuarial sciences. I found my calling when I met a statistics professor who was also trained in biostatistics. He had worked in the field before stepping back into teaching and he brought real life examples to the classroom: stories about medicine and math that dealt with tangible problems. That inspired me and I went to graduate school to study biostatistics. For me, it’s the right balance of math and medicine.
What brought you to
Mayo Clinic and what keeps you here?
I was engaged in research at the Medical University of South Carolina in my hometown of Charleston and I was involved in helping them write their first Clinical and Translational Science Award grant. I was looking to take the next step in my career when I saw an ad from Mayo Clinic for a biostatistics director for its newly funded Clinical and Translational Science Award program. I applied immediately.
At the Medical University of South Carolina, I helped run a “collaboration unit” and was a champion for team science. I brought these ideas with me to Mayo and now still use them to help shape the services provided by Mayo’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCaTS).
Mayo’s values are what make me happy to work here. A lot of statisticians work in a theoretical space. In my work at Mayo, I know that the work I do will lead to direct patient impact.
What is your current research interest?
Like many people at Mayo, it’s artificial intelligence (AI). For me, AI blends my interests in computation, statistics and medicine. The data in medicine are complex and AI approaches can help us chart a better course in medicine, opening up new data and insights.
Right now I’m involved in revisiting classical solutions in medical science and looking at the evidence that has been accumulated over time. AI gives us access to different computational tools that may help us better understand complex human processes that have previously resulted in conflicting medical evidence.
Tell me about the Biostatistics, Epidemiology
and Research Design program.
The Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Research Design program is a consulting service available to anyone involved in research at Mayo Clinic. We teach investigators how to make the best use of biostatistics in designing, conducting, and analyzing research. Medical data are complex. We show people how to make the most meaningful use of their data in order to advance medicine.
During a typical consult, a biostatistician will sit down with a researcher to review their protocol or manuscript in order to better understand the underlying research question. The program can provide feedback on study aims and design, data management strategies, and data analysis and interpretation. In addition, we can offer general guidance on statistical methods, software, and advanced computational tools. We don’t provide data analysis services—we don’t steer the boat for you. We advise and we enable investigators to perform many routine analyses themselves. When necessary, we help researchers make connections to resources that can help with the more complex analyses.
The Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Research Design program recently expanded its services in Florida by partnering with the Florida Clinical Practice Committee and Research Committee to start a pilot program called the Research Accelerator for Clinicians Engaged in Research. Can you tell me more about it?
The Research Accelerator for Clinicians Engaged in Research, sometimes unofficially referred to as “RACER,” is a mentored career development program that helps match early-career clinicians with the resources they need to start pursuing research and prepare to apply for their first extramural grant.
We started this program because we want to grow research in Florida. Right now, Mayo Clinic in Florida has 13% of its clinicians engaged in research, which is about half the percentage they have Rochester and Arizona. We want to change that and programs like this will help us get there. Our vision is that one day we’ll engage our clinicians with a program like RACER the minute they come to Mayo. Get them started competing for one of these awards right away, with research as a part of their career development.
Why is it important
to provide access to programs like the Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Research
Design program and the Research Accelerator?
Everything we’re doing
is about advancing research. We accomplish that by making research more
accessible and giving our staff the skills to pursue it. Mayo wants its staff to be curious and to
allow that curiosity to become a vital part of their careers. We know from
experience that this sort of activity leads to finding solutions for unmet
patient needs. Delivering hope and healing for patients—that’s “true north” for
me, and for all of us here at Mayo Clinic.