47 Students Living In 16 Locations In 4 Countries Working Toward 1 Master Of Biostatistics Degree

The 2020 Duke Master of Biostatistics fall semester successfully concluded for 47 first year master’s students. While this year and semester have been unprecedented in experience for everyone around the world, the Biostatistics solution to the pandemic was unique – one program taught in two places with students participating in person in China, remotely in Durham and online from several different cities in the United States and China as well as in Canada and South Korea . 

In March 2020, all educational programs at Duke pivoted to online classes.  While every program hoped to return to the classroom in the fall, it was clear by mid-summer that students who had been accepted into the master’s program from China and South Korea would not be able to enter the US to attend class for the fall semester.  Although students in Asia could attend classes in Durham remotely, with the time change, they would be taking courses late in the night or the early morning hours.  What to do? 

In Asia

At that crucial moment, faculty Shein-Chung Chow, PhD, stepped up to the plate and volunteered to travel to China for the fall semester and teach the 32 students from the  Duke Kunshan University  (DKU) Campus.  There would be 28 students physically on campus and 4 students who would remotely attend class from three cities in China: Henan; Sichuan; Shanghai and one student from Seoul, South Korea. 

“Having students at Duke Kunshan University was a huge learning opportunity for our program. We met and collaborated with many individuals and teams across Durham and Kunshan who made the cohort possible. There were many moving parts from logistical challenges to altering our educational delivery mode. We are very grateful to those who assisted us in making it happen. Support came from Dean Mary Klotman, Dr. Shein-Chung Chow, Dr. Shuyi Wang (of DKU), Dr. Yuling Jiao, (of Wuhun University), Dr. Beth Sullivan (SoM), Julie Barker and Tracy Clouse (of the Duke DKU Support Unit) in addition to our wonderful Biostatistics Education Team and Instructors. I am so pleased the program could continue to offer all of our students the chance to continue their training” said Michelle Evans B&B Associate Director, Strategy and Operations .  Without Dr. Chow’s presence and willingness to travel to Asia for several months, this plan would not have been possible.

In North America

Meanwhile in the United States there were 16 students from diverse states such as Utah, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, Georgia, Washington, Minnesota, and North Carolina (Durham and Asheville) as well as one from Vancouver, Canada.  Students adhered to strict safety guidelines and surveillance testing to minimize the spread of the virus on campus and in our community. Some stayed where they were while others physically came to Durham  but all attended their classes online with the instructors from the Duke campus in Durham.  The class meeting times of two of the four first year courses were moved to allow all 47 students to attend live online together.  Faculty Jesse Troy, Course Director for the Introduction to the Practice of Biostatistics course said “This was a first for me. I’ve never taught an online course ‘live’ before, not to mention to a global audience. I was so impressed with how engaged the students were, even though for some of them it was long past the hour when they probably wanted to be asleep! We had a variety of activities including group projects, seminar style discussions, and didactic lectures. The students gave it their all throughout the entire course. I was truly impressed to see such dedication during such extraordinary times."

Embracing the challenge and meeting the Class of 2020

To meet each other and encourage an esprit de corps for the class of 2022, multiple online social gatherings were held. It was exciting to meet everyone on Zoom, learn how everyone was dealing with this most unusual semester and get updates on happenings at both campuses. 

At DKU, two masters students Weiliang Tian and Wenyue Zhuo arranged special guest lectures from two clinical research faculty who visited the DKU campus from Beijing Friendship Hospital, Capital Medical University.  Dr. Jidong Jia, Deputy Director of the National Medical Research Center for Digestive Diseases, spoke about “The role of clinicians in clinical research” and Dr. Yuanyuan Kong, Deputy Director of Methodology Platform, National Digestive Diseases Clinical Medical Research Center, spoke about “The role of biostatisticians in clinical research.” The talks were followed by an informal panel discussion and questions from the students.  

Moving Forward

With safety concerns still paramount, the masters program will continue with the current structure of both in person and online courses in Asia and online only courses in North America for the spring semester of 2021.  David Page, Chairman of the Department of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics was pleased with the fall semester stating, “The pandemic is constantly evolving and has changed the way we live, study, and interact.  While online classes deliver a different experience from in-person learning, the response to our hybrid and multi-location strategy has been highly successful and I’m confident that our faculty will continue to provide an engaging, and innovative program to all our students.”

It’s been a year like none before it, but on to 2021!