The first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in statistics at the University of Georgia, Stacy Cobb has turned a passion for public health into a career as a biostatistician.
Along the way, Cobb has discovered an expansive capacity for learning, the importance of role models and the crucial role that confidence plays in the formula for academic success.
She returned to the UGA campus Friday for Commencement ceremonies to receive the doctorate she earned in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.
As an undergraduate at Savannah State University, Cobb was among one of the first cohorts of STEM programs for minorities.
“They really pushed us to stay in the science realm,” said Cobb, who said she’s loved math since her formative school years but didn’t always have the confidence necessary to succeed in a very challenging discipline.
Though gaps remain, Cobb’s success shows that developing the interest of young women and minorities in science and technology fields results from a combination of effective programs that encourage underrepresented groups in STEM fields, as well as the enduring power of societal cues and role models.
“Exposure and a more welcoming environment for women and people of color will help. The recent film ‘Hidden Figures’ is a great example. I didn’t grow up knowing that women like that even existed,” Cobb said. “If the interest is sparked then more people will migrate towards the area.”
Cobb began her graduate studies at Stony Brook University, New York, in a bridge-to-doctorate program, though the curriculum and its design didn’t match with her strengths and abilities. When she ended up with a master’s degree instead, Cobb took it a sign of failure, that gaps in her learning style meant a lack of competency and aptitude necessary in the field.
“I was discouraged and I doubted whether I deserved to get a Ph.D.,” she said.
Instead, she was accepted into an internship program at Harvard University.
“Over that summer, I found out that public health was actually my passion and that I did want to continue to pursue my Ph.D.,” Cobb said. “The influence of that summer program really stuck with me, the type of analyses that they did, it just intrigued me. That’s when I realized I wanted to do statistical public health research.”
Cobb ended up receiving a yearlong research assistantship at Harvard in the epidemiology department, where she gained more experience and decided to try to re-enroll in a Ph.D. program.
“I decided not to accept that I couldn’t do it,” she said.
And that is where UGA came into her story. She was accepted with a full scholarship.
“I’m from Georgia and I had been up north for three years so I wanted to be closer to home,” she said, “and of course UGA is one of the greatest schools in the South.”
One of the important factors in her decision to come to UGA was the alignment with the statistics department and the type of research by the faculty.
“You have to make sure that a school is a good fit for you-geared toward your learning style, the type of research, and the environment you want to work in,” she said.
Cobb found many positives in UGA statistics, including the faculty member who would be her advisor, a bioinformatics specialist who focuses on genetics research.
“Stacy is probably the most focused and determined of all of the Ph.D. students that I have worked with,” said Paul Schliekelman, associate professor in the department of statistics at UGA. “She was the first statistician to make an in-depth analysis of genotype-by sequencing experiments, a recently developed technique that uses next-generation DNA sequencing technology for gene mapping. Her work will help genetics researchers to design their experiments so that they make the most efficient use of resources.”
Cobb defended her dissertation in January and had not returned to campus since because she has already started her dream job at Duke Clinical Research Institute in Durham, North Carolina. She returned to campus for Commencement Friday.
“I love the type of work that I do. Right now, I’m doing public health research, coordinating with physicians such as cardiologists to answer pertinent health questions that affect communities at a global level,” she said. “It will help save more lives, and my goal is to be a part of some positive change when it comes to public health.”
As a member of one earliest cohorts of a women in STEM initiative, what does she think is the best way to encourage young women and people of color to pursue their interests in science, technology, engineering or mathematics?
“I think there is some intimidation of ‘Oh, that’s not for you’ or ‘You’re not smart enough for that’ when in actuality it’s exactly what your mind is made for. So they need that confidence: You can do it just as well as anyone else,” Cobb said.
— Alan Flurry, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences