Alain Vandal comes full circle

31 July 2019

Newly-appointed staff member Alain Vandal did his PhD in the Department of Statistics in the late 1990s. Twenty years later, he’s back as an Associate Professor in Biostatistics, enjoying renewing old ties and teaching the next generation of statisticians.

Alain, a native speaker of French from Québec, focuses on statistics for public health. Over the years, his work has encompassed areas as diverse as family violence, gambling, renal and respiratory medicine, HIV/AIDS and rheumatology. His primary research interests are statistical methods for randomised trials and diagnostic validity.

In his new role, he is keen to build bridges between his colleagues and students in the Department of Statistics and the network of public-health collaborators he has built over the years. There is, Alain says, a pressing need for applied statisticians in public health.

Interestingly, Alain says that his early engagement with statistics as a science undergraduate at Montréal’s McGill University was a little rocky. At the time, Alain says, he had modest mathematical skill and no statistics knowledge. He did well in his first probability course, but was completely flummoxed by the statistics courses that followed – to the point that he nearly abandoned the subject.

On his second attempt, it started making sense. The two jobs Alain held before his masters degree in statistics and just afterwards solidified his interest in providing clear and intelligible statistics to inform good decision-making in health-related fields.

The Kiwi connection came about in the early 1990s, after Alain was sent to a workshop in New Zealand by his masters degree supervisor. Alain met Department of Statistics founding members such as the late Alastair Scott, Alan Lee and George Seber, as well as staff such as Renate Meyer, an astrostatistician, and Robert Gentleman and Ross Ihaka, who co-founded R, a renowned statistical programming language.

The trip convinced Alain that the Department of Statistics was the right place to do his PhD. He returned in 1996 on a Québec government scholarship and completed his thesis on interval-censored data under the supervision of Robert Gentleman. During this time, Alain also met his New Zealand-born wife Sally. The pair later spent 10 years back in Montréal, where Alain held a range of biostatistics roles and where their son Étienne was born.

The family returned to Auckland in 2010, with Alain taking dual roles at AUT and also at Ko Awatea, the healthcare innovation unit within Counties Manukau District Health Board, where he provides support in research design, analytical design, data monitoring and data analysis. Alain will remain involved with Ko Awatea, and says the dual role gives him a good opportunity to expose students to interesting work in collaborative research.