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College of Engineering and Computing

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Alumni Q & A: How Myra Robinson turns health care data into hope

Myra Robinson is a senior statistician at the Levine Cancer Institute (LCI) in Charlotte, NC. By day, you can find her consulting with clinicians and researchers on clinical trial designs, overseeing the status of open-to-accrual clinical trials, processing and analyzing datasets or compiling statistical results for a variety of reporting requirements. By night, she spoils her dog Violet or moonlights as a circus artist.

Robinson graduated from the University of South Carolina’s College of Engineering and Computing in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering. She later graduated from the Arnold School of Public Health in 2014 with a MSPH in Biostatistics. Her desire to combine mathematics and medicine led her to oncology statistics at LCI, where she started as an intern in 2013 and later joined the full-time staff in 2014. Robinson is passionate about translating chaos into structure, whether it’s organizing hundreds of data points into orderly and interpretable results, or turning a physician’s research ideas into an organized and valid study design. The CEC sat down with Robinson to ask about her CEC experience and how she uses complex data to create transformative health care solutions.

How much of an impact did the CEC and UofSC have on your career?

The CEC and UofSC had a huge impact on my career. It was through the CEC that I was first exposed to the principles of hypothesis-driven research. I was involved in several research projects throughout my undergraduate years at the CEC, including formulation and characterization of a vascular biosealant in Tarek Shazly’s biomaterials lab. While I have shifted my focus from benchtop to clinical research, the foundations of research, including hypothesis testing and the need for reliable methods and reproducible results, are still key to my career in research. It was also through the biosealant research that I discovered my passion for the analysis aspect of research, where data points were translated into results.

The CEC also encouraged me to be innovative in approaches to problem solving. We often need to come up with creative solutions for both department-wide obstacles, like the randomization process or project management strategies for dealing with our growing number of collaborators and associated project, and study-specific challenges, like study design and data management for a multimillion-dollar, grant-funded protocol involving 14 sites across the eastern U.S.

What does it mean to you to be working at the Levine Cancer Institute and helping to make an impact for cancer patients?

Growing up with a mother who was a nurse, health care and medicine became early passions of mine. While my skills led me to a more technical role rather than direct patient care, my involvement in the complex world of health care is exactly where I was meant to end up. As everyone can appreciate, being able to make even a small impact on the lives of patients with such a devastating disease as cancer is incredibly rewarding. While the research I am involved in is most often phase 1 or 2 clinical trials or observational/non-interventional research relying on data available in medical records, this research still has important implications for improving treatment options and quality of life for cancer patients. Also, the results of those trials are essential for informing large phase 3 trials that change standards of care and give patients new hope.

More recently, I have felt the impact of cancer closer to home when my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. While his prognosis is good, I realized the information we were consuming and relying on to understand his disease, prognosis and treatment options, was once data that was analyzed and summarized by a statistician just like me. The research that his oncologist was citing when giving my dad options and perspective was made possible by a statistician just like me. It reminded me that while I may see data points in my day-to-day work, my role in analyzing and summarizing results may eventually be read by a patient or family member and give them answers to their questions, or even better, hope for the best outcomes.

How important is technology in your role and the overall work of the Levine Cancer Institute?

As you might expect, technology is at the forefront in cancer research. My role specifically involves specialized software, SAS v 9.4, for data management and statistical analysis that would either be impossible or vastly time consuming to do without that software. Advanced statistical analysis methods require computational power that is available thanks to technology.

Another critical role of technology in cancer research is in precision medicine and patient-specific treatment approaches. The ultimate goal of precision medicine in oncology is matching cancer patients with the best therapies for their disease. In order to do this, biotechnology is vital. One such example is Next Generation Sequencing (NGS), which is utilized at LCI, often in parallel with clinical research, to better understand molecular pathogenesis of cancer and to identify novel diagnostic and therapeutic approaches. In some of the trials at LCI, NGS is used to determine if certain tumor types are “hypermutated” at the genetic level, which is hypothesized to correlate with response to certain treatments. Another often used technology in the correlative studies of clinical trials is immunohistochemistry (IHC). IHC is used to detect antigens of interest in tissues sections. PD-L1 one such antigen that is often studied in our clinical trials as the expression level of PD-L1 may be important for clinical responses to PD-1 blockade therapy.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

In 10 years, I hope that I am continuing to make an impact on the landscape of oncology research and am still involved in the development of novel treatment strategies and precision medicine for the treatment of cancer. As the timelines of cancer clinical trials are often years long, I also look forward to following my developing studies to conclusion and seeing the impact that those studies have on the standards of care. I would also love to be involved in mentoring of entry-level statisticians in the department, as it is rewarding to be able to share my knowledge and experience, as well as get ideas from the minds of individuals who are newer in their career, as they often have unique perspectives on old problems.

What would you say to a student who is about to graduate from the CEC?

Firstly, congratulations on making it through your engineering or computing program! Not many people understand the blood, sweat and tears that go into accomplishing that, so be proud of yourself! Also, it’s 100% okay if your career path takes unexpected twists and turns before you find your place in the world. I found a passion in oncology research and clinical trial design through a winding journey that I was completely unprepared for when I walked across the stage at Colonial Life Arena. But thanks to the CEC, you will be prepared to adapt and persevere through life’s challenges, and don’t forget to pursue the things that bring you joy!

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.