Carnegie Mellon University Professor Kathryn Roeder delivered this year’s Donna J. Brogan Lecture in Biostatistics about the use of statistical methods in autism research this past Wednesday at the Rollins School of Public Health.

The lecture, titled “Statistics and Genetics Open a Window Into Autism” delivered to a crowd of more than 100 people, focused particularly on how Roeder and her colleagues are using biostatistical studies to identify genes that cause autism.

Roeder, a professor in the department of Statistics and Lane Center for Computational Biology at Carnegie Mellon, discussed strategies that she and her team were using to identify autism risk genes, including improved study designs and techniques such as mapping.

She reported that she and her team had found about 100 genes that could potentially cause autism. Roeder added that she and her team had made even more exciting findings, although they were not able to publicly discuss this information until a later date.

Roeder said that in the past, scientists debated to what extent autism was influenced by genetics or the environment. However, recent genetics research has identified a considerable number of genes that could be at risk for causing autism, she explained, signaling that autism is mainly genetic. The prevalence of de novo mutations, which cause a loss of function in genes, in the genes that cause autism signals a “focal point” for autism risk, Roeder said.

Among the attendees, which included many Rollins students and professors, was Donna J. Brogan, retired chair of the department of Biostatistics in the School of Public Health and namesake of the annual lecture.

“I thought it was a very good presentation,” Brogan said. “It sounds like very exciting research even though she did say that some of her particular projects did not turn out the way that she wanted.”

Others found that the event showcased diversity in scientific research.

“I thought it was really interesting,” Marcy Schaeffer, a first year Masters in Public Health student, said. “I’m in biostats, and I feel like the premise of this event is focusing on female researchers, so I appreciated that.”

According to Brogan, the Donna J. Brogan Lecture was established in 2006 and annually brings speakers to campus to discuss how biostatistics contributes to other areas of research.

Rollins Professor of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Robert Lyles added that the lecture was one of the department’s most significant events.

“It’s definitely one of the biggest events our department holds every year, in part because it honors Professor Brogan who’s done so much for our department and in part because the organizers of the event always find a terrific speaker who’s going to appeal to a wide audience,” Lyles said.  ​

– By Harmeet Kaur

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