When the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded its Graduate Research Fellowships for 2023, only a dozen students across the nation were offered fellowships in the area of statistics. Among the 12 was Christina Magana-Ramirez, a first-year Ph.D. student in UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS).
Magana-Ramirez was first drawn to mathematics at a young age. “My first language was Spanish and I always struggled with English, so I found math really comforting,” she explains. She went on to earn a B.S. in mathematics from California State University, Monterey Bay, where she conducted research in the field of statistics. “I got put on an applied stats project, which then made me realize that statistics can be very powerful. It’s in every field!”
Her future statistics research will now be funded through the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), which recognizes outstanding graduate students in STEM disciplines across the U.S. and has a history of selecting recipients who go on to achieve high levels of success. Magana-Ramirez will earn a three-year annual stipend of $37,000, as well as $12,000 paid directly to the university to cover tuition and fees.
“I was very surprised and just extremely grateful,” says Magana-Ramirez, who has a passion for solving real-world problems. Her recent research has involved exploring how to better recruit minority groups for Alzheimer’s disease clinical trials. Working with her advisor, Daniel Gillen, Chancellor’s Professor and chair of statistics, and Joshua Grill of UCI’s School of Medicine, she has been analyzing survey data to get a sense of the motivations between different races and ethnicities. “We’re seeing if we can come up with recruitment strategies for underrepresented groups.”
For the NSF Fellowship, she submitted a research proposal that continues her focus on clinical trials while narrowing in on sequential testing, which can reduce costs, increase the number of available participants, and improve the participant experience.
“Despite the established benefits of sequential testing theory in clinical trials, recent controversy has arisen regarding the utility of interim testing, especially in Alzheimer’s disease (AD),” she wrote in her fellowship research proposal. She goes on to argue that “the criticisms regarding interim testing in clinical trials are primarily driven by (i) a lack of understanding of the theoretical properties of sequential testing procedures and how they translate into scientific decision making, and (ii) a lack of statistical methodology that can better incorporate our full knowledge of acquired data when making decisions with partial trial information.”
Magana-Ramirez aims to address these issues by developing a new methodology. “I want to create a framework to be able to guide individuals in their decision making during sequential testing,” she says. “The idea is to save resources and hopefully expedite the process [by defining] different stopping boundaries [and] incorporating historical data about the drug.”
Through her various projects, she hopes to inspire other Latina women in STEM and help resolve public health disparities across race and ethnicity.
— Shani Murray