Dr. A. John Petkau
Vancouver, British Columbia
Professor, Department of Statistics, University of British Columbia
U of M Degrees:
BSc Mathematics & Statistics (1971)
“A lot of people think of statistical science as simply taking a census or doing opinion polling, but that’s just one very small part of it. I see it as not just a mathematical discipline, but a collaborative discipline – you’re working together with people in other disciplines to try and solve a problem, and you’re bringing your statistical expertise in to help solve that problem for a broader benefit.”
What was your strongest memory from your time studying at the U of M, Faculty of Science?
The first thing that pops into my mind was wandering through the tunnels, going from class to class in the middle of winter - to avoid going outside. It was quite memorable, I must say. Other than that, I was very lucky that I had so many excellent instructors who inspired me, challenged and motivated me to do more and to go beyond what was required for the course, and to explore things on my own.
What opportunity during or after your time in the Faculty of Science helped launch your career?
Some of the outstanding instructors I had at U of M really took an interest in me and provided guidance and mentoring which was so important. I had no idea what was possible – I grew up on a farm and my high school graduation class only had 12 students. Without those instructors’ intervention, I probably wouldn’t have become aware of the opportunities available to me, or applied to many of the universities I did for graduate school. Without their guidance and encouragement, I’m sure I never would have gone on to do my PhD studies at Stanford University, which led to more great opportunities.
What is the most fascinating and/or engaging experience you have had during your career in science?
I think it would have to be my involvement with research in Multiple Sclerosis (MS) – interacting with medical researchers all around the world, having an influence on how studies are being carried out, evaluating the evidence obtained in these studies, and so on. Doing something that hopefully benefits patients directly is of course part of the reward, in the sense that you feel like you’re doing something very important. One thing I have found very rewarding is that the medical people value my expert opinion and are always very eager to learn more, hear more, and be guided. Working on the statistics side translates into improvements in clinics and in hospitals throughout the world, so that’s also really interesting for me because it combines the mathematical tools, computational tools, and statistical thinking and that has direct impact in terms of studies that are being carried out to generate new knowledge and understanding.
Do you find greater satisfaction in the application of your results – as in the case of improving MS research and the enhanced treatments it may provide – or in your advancements in applied statistics and passing that on to more generations of scientists?
I’d say it’s actually a continuum. Statistics as a discipline is very collaborative: statisticians interact with scientists in other disciplines to try to solve problems in those disciplines. If I’m working on trying to solve some problem that has arisen in the context of an MS issue that has come up in a study, I may “do some math” in order to try to develop some new procedure or modify something that’s available to make it more applicable to that particular context. Then I’ll probably want to involve a student in that activity to assist in evaluating these new or modified procedures. I find training and mentoring students one of the most satisfying and rewarding roles of being a professor. So both are very rewarding and lots of fun, but to me it’s really all part of the same thing.
While Dr. John Petkau chose a career in science, he would tell you that the statistics field actually chose him. Many of the major elements of his career came to him, he says, “by accident” – including getting involved in developing an application of statistical methodologies for clinical trials of therapies in Multiple Sclerosis, contributing to a government study to determine whether there was a link between air pollution and respirator outcomes, and even simply entering the statistics field itself - after his future brother-in-law suggested he take a second-year statistics course during his first year at U of M. Today, in addition to teaching students, Petkau interacts with scientists in other areas who are running various studies, to try and help them solve problems in terms of how they design their studies and how they might make sense of the data that they collect.
Petkau’s primary research focus has long been in the development and application of statistical methodologies for clinical trials of therapies in MS. His work has helped other researchers to identify factors that counteract the effects of very expensive medication, in turn helping to allow people with MS to switch to more effective medications. He was one of the earliest statisticians to work on an environmental epidemiology study of connections between air pollution and human health – specifically, the health effects of inhalable particulate matter. Petkau has served on or chaired more than 40 statistical sciences committees; panels or advisory boards; and, in 2014, he received the Statistical Society of Canada Award for Impact of Applied and Collaborative Work.