To say that Dr. Andrew Allen’s journey in science has been a whirlwind would be an understatement.
Dr. Allen began his undergraduate career as a prospective electrical or biomedical engineer. However, in the span of one semester, he quickly realized that his interests laid elsewhere. To him, studying to be an engineer was too regimented. As he puts it, he felt that his studies were only training him to follow certain protocols, rather than challenging him to discover new things and think creatively.
So, he decided to pursue a math major instead, and graduated with a degree in Mathematics. Following undergrad, Dr. Allen went to graduate school for a Ph.D in Mathematics as well. However, as he neared starting his dissertation, he began to realize that the field of mathematics was already saturated. As he remembers, one time, a job opening that he saw had upwards of 2,000 applicants!
With that, Dr. Allen decided to discontinue his Ph.D studies and explored working in industry instead. He first began work as a hydrologist. However, he felt that his work was constrained to corporate needs, rather than helping the scientific community. So, Dr. Allen decided to apply for a biostatistician role at a medical school. Interestingly enough, he had never had much formal training in biostatistics. As Dr. Allen vividly remembers, he read every single relevant book he could find, which led him to land the job.
Motivated by this, he went to Emory University and obtained a Ph.D in Biostatistics in 2001. Since then, Dr. Allen has settled down at Duke, where he teaches graduate level courses in biostatistics while also conducting research with his lab.
In about his research, Dr. Allen categorizes his work into three categories: discovery genetics, developing statistical methods for estimation of regulatory effects due to genetic variation, and population genetics. Because of his focus on data analysis, Dr. Allen rarely conducts wet lab research. His specific expertise in developing and improving statistical models has allowed him to collaborate with many other labs, which is something that Dr. Allen really enjoys. Elaborating further, he talked about how he is driven by the thrill of discovering new things, which motivates him to continue to explore the unknown.
When asked about what he cherishes most about his job, he responds that he enjoys how being in academia offers constant opportunities to educate himself. In his own words, he loves being around people who make him feel dumb—not in an harmful way, but in a way that pushes him to keep learning new things.
Finally, when Dr. Allen offered advice to me, his main message was to maintain flexibility in what my interests were and to take advantage of as many opportunities as I could. Second, he recommended that I try to maximize my exposure to all things computational, since it’s becoming increasingly important in every scientific field.
To me, Dr. Allen’s story not only inspires me to pursue my interests, but also offers reassurance that, if your interests change, it’s okay to start over and make changes. I’m grateful to have a mentor with such a wealth of experience, and I’m excited to forge ahead with whatever the future may hold.