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Dr. Ben Rubin: Measuring Life and Loving It

By Aniruddho Chokroborty Hoque

Ben Rubin


Dr. Ben Rubin is an assistant professor in the Biology Department at Western University. While his graduate education is firmly rooted in forest ecology, forest health monitoring, and spatial statistics, Dr. Rubin happens to be exceptionally good in quantifying curiosity. He actually liked math as a kid. His Errol Flynn-esque affinity for the numeric has had him swashbuckling from one equation to another, tackling complex derivatives and tussling with tricky formulae.

          "Over the years, the study of biology has grown exponentially with a corresponding need to analyze the flood of data accompanying all that research," says Dr. Rubin. From analyzing the genetic properties of a billion nerve cells in the brain to examining the patterns of bird migration across millions of square miles of migratory paths, graduate students and professors at Western Biology are pushing the mathematical and computational limits of life-science research. While statistics usage has greatly increased over the past few decades, graduate students still approach the field timidly. Possibly symptomatic of the inherently intimidating high-school experience of math, fledging mathophobes eventually bloom into graduate students with a durable aversion to the "sadism of statistics", as one graduate student puts it.

           The biologist’s world is one of undulating, pulsating life. Life that breathes creates and kills day in and day out in order to live and survive. For many biologists, the heady romanticism of discovery is marred by the clinical lifelessness of numbers.  Students of biology peer, poke and prod at life with their version of a meter-stick; they count cells and weigh tissues, assay hormones and assess memory, track migration distances and determine reaction times. By measuring 'life', they inch closer to understanding it. Readings and numbers obtained from a well-designed and well-executed experiment are an unbiased testament to the researcher's skills. They lend a respectable, dignified air to one's inquisitiveness, a measuring cup to hold the spirit of inquiry. Because quantification is in essence numerical in nature, the biologist's   dawn   of eureka   is often   shrouded in mathematic-ese.

           "My wife is fluent in five languages,” informs Dr. Rubin. Her fluency, he feels, gives her the ability to traverse the subtleties of thought and culture through the kaleidoscope of various linguistic idiosyncrasies, making her world-view richer and more nuanced. Statistics is Dr. Rubin’s kaleidoscope, his many-coloured lens, to see the world around him. "It is a mathematical discipline complete with its own rules of grammar and syntax. Here, everyday words, like 'average', 'probability' and 'random', have strict context-specific definitions around which whole   models and theories are built," he continues. In the biology researcher's world, life after being investigated, scrutinized and inspected, has its essence distilled into numbers, its rumblings and whispers bottled into lists and tabulated in spreadsheets. Numbers are the tessellating pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and statistics is rearranging those pieces in order to see the bigger picture.

            Dr. Rubin hopes to guide students in harnessing the story-telling properties of these numbers using the language of statistics. The fluency, in this case, begins with asking some very basic and vital questions. Whereas numbers simply quantify, statistics quantifies differences and relationships. If two or more groups are different, how big is the difference?  How are different variables related to each other? Are the observations due to sheer chance and randomness or are they real differences? How does one account for the error inherent in any sort of measurement? Due to the constraints of time, funding and methodology, scientists often   extrapolate the   results of a handful of samples to draw conclusions about whole populations. How many samples are actually needed to draw a meaningful conclusion? How does one actually go about randomly choosing samples? How valid are the extrapolation methods? It is the confluence of all these moving parts that resembles a fully functional, working car.

In his time here at Western Biology, Dr. Rubin, as the chief statistics-mechanic, has tended to a lot of broken car-parts. He has been able to observe how people "use, misuse, understand and present statistics," all of which has been especially useful from a pedagogical  perspective. "It has definitely made me a better teacher and helped me understand the individual needs more clearly." In his time here, he has given statistical Heimlichs to everyone from full-time amateurs to part-time professionals. While some researchers need a crash-course in statistics 101 from Dr. Rubin, he has definitely had his share of interesting cases. "Sometimes, students and professors will come to me with some really challenging problems that I have no expertise on and I'll usually spend a day or two reading about it and catching up. We then tend to figure out the problem together", he says.

For all his numerical gymnastics, Dr. Rubin is a biologist at heart. While he does teach a graduate course on research hypothesis testing and holds workshops in the use of R, a highly popular and powerful open-source statistical software program, he looks forward to his yearly summer field course in the Adirondak Forest, where he teaches natural history and sampling methods. "After my undergraduate degree in Biology, I pursued a PhD in forest ecology. I learnt as much statistics as I could in order to understand and figure out ecology," Dr. Rubin professes and considers himself to be an ecologist who just happens to love statistics. The researcher in him lives vicariously through his meetings with different laboratories in the department. Experimental design and sampling methodologies are inextricably dependent on the kinds of questions researchers want to ask, the incorrect implementation of which can completely invalidate the study’s efforts. From the personal experience of this author, talk to Dr. Ben Rubin before you start a project and you’ll be saving yourself hours and even months of frustration! Apart from guiding and directing traffic, smoothing bumpy landings and being the extra push for the partly initiated; Dr. Rubin thoroughly enjoys being the academic voyeur. He says, "I get to meet about fifty to seventy students and professors over the course of a year." From his perspective he gets to, "snoop around and be the fly-on-the-wall, learning about all this superb potpourri of research going on in our department." Ultimately, as a statistical Dr. Fixit, Ben Rubin is putting a stethoscope on the numerical heartbeat of life and helping others hear it.

Aniruddho Chokroborty Hoque, a PhD candidate in Shiva Singhs lab, is the graduate student science communications liaison officer for the Biology Department. This article resulted from a science-writing internship with Prof. David Smith.