Faculty Impact: From NASA to nursing, a statistician’s team science journey

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Dr. Robert Ploutz-Snyder

“If you had told me when I was a high school student that one day I would be a statistician, I would have laughed,” said Robert Ploutz-Snyder, Ph.D., PSTAT®, a research professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing (UMSN). “I did fine in math, but I thought it was boring.”

That changed when Ploutz-Snyder was pursuing a degree in experimental psychology.

“There are all sorts of predictions about behavior and measures on perceptions and feelings that are hard to measure,” he said. “You have to get creative to get answers. That’s when my eyes opened up and I began to shift my training towards quantitative methods.”

NASA

Ploutz-Snyder joined UMSN in 2016 after spending eight years as a biostatistician in NASA’s Human Research Program at the Johnson Space Center.

“Their whole mission is trying to understanding the impact of space flight on the human body so we can keep astronauts living and working in space safely,” he explained. “It’s basically a small university. There’s a muscle lab, a cardiovascular lab, and they have people focused on immunology, nutrition, pharmacology and many other areas.”

The specialized work of astronauts creates unusual conditions.

“The astronauts are in a microgravity environment with accelerated radiation exposure, high stress, and interrupted sleep,” said Ploutz-Snyder. “We know there are issues with lowered bone density, muscle loss, neural, nerve and ocular changes. Exposing humans to all those things creates a big insult to the system.”

The research itself also brings challenges.

“We are faced with small sample sizes, lack of experimental control, interruptions to standard operating procedures, and long waits until data collection,” he said. “ I’m a bit of a space-geek, so to me, these challenges just made me want to work that much harder so that NASA could understand and manage the risks of human spaceflight.”

The move to UMSN

Ploutz-Snyder leading a presentation on grant proposalsBefore NASA, Ploutz-Snyder began his faculty career at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University and its Center for Outcomes Research and Assessment.  His appointment there was similar to what would come at NASA, and eventually at UMSN, in that he was engaged in a team-science approach to funding and conducting research.   While he worked with a few nurse researchers at SUNY UMU, he acknowledges that he didn’t fully appreciate the depth of nursing research.

“I came in with the assumption that most nursing researchers were doing research to improve the field of nursing but I quickly learned there is no stereotypical nursing research,” he explained. “I worried it might get old quickly because I like working on a lot of different things, but we’ve definitely got that here.”

Admittedly atypical

Ploutz-Snyder says that variety is a favorite part of his job.

“I’m a little atypical,” he said. “My passion is being a team scientist. Some other statisticians consider that work to be obligatory service and wouldn’t do this job, but I’d put collaboration against first authorship any day because when we collaborate, we bring better science.  We just do better.”

UMSN’s Applied Biostatistics Laboratory

At UMSN, Ploutz-Snyder leads the Applied Biostatistics Laboratory which has a team of four statisticians partnering with faculty.

“I really enjoy when I can sit down with someone and learn about their research,” he said. “I love to hear what their challenges are and then work together on a robust research proposal. There is something about competing for funds that I didn’t anticipate liking so much but it brings out my competitive spirit a little bit.”

Ploutz-Snyder collaborating with UMSN's Marie-Anne Rosemberg and Bidisha Ghosh Even within a research-focused university like U-M, UMSN’s Applied Biostatistics Lab is a valued commodity.

“It’s unusual to have a hard-funded statistical group like us,” he said. “Many faculty across campus want support like us. You can ask a statistician to be on your grant, but their job is to forward their own research, so they are generally very protective of their work time.  This means that they may be reluctant to collaborate unless there’s something about the work that aligns with their own work. In contrast, I think the team emphasis in our school is helpful for better science.  It’s also a whole lot of fun.”

In the classroom

The "wordle" from the first day of one of Ploutz-Snyder's classesPloutz-Snyder knows his courses are not likely to be the favorites of nursing students. On the first day of one class, he asked students to share one word summing up how they felt about stats by texting that word to live, anonymous “wordle” graph. One student said “excited,” but all the other words had negative connotations, like “anxious,” and even “terrified.” “Nervous” was the most commonly submitted word.

“Stats isn’t why they came to nursing and I get that,” he said. “But, the ones on the research track know it’s important. They’re serious about their education so they hunker down and figure it out.”

Mentoring women

As the father of two girls, Ploutz-Snyder has an extra focus on encouraging young female students to think about math-focused careers. That’s why he likes to volunteer at middle school career days and similar events.

“Even today, girls are not treated the same as boys in the classroom,” he said. “I’m trying to encourage equity. There are great jobs out there but you can’t get to some of them unless you have a strong math background. A lot of these jobs aren’t even on the radar for young kids, but my message is essentially that there are a lot of great options that require math.  I want kids to hang in there until they get to the exciting stuff.”

Moving forward

Now more than a year into his position at UMSN, Ploutz-Snyder says even though this job is light years away from what he imagined himself doing when he was a young student, it’s become a perfect fit.

“I’ve only seen growth in terms of the school’s commitment to research, especially to collaborative team science,” he said. “It works really well for a guy like me.”