By Martha Henry
Dr. Stephen Lagakos, an international leader in biostatistics and AIDS research and professor of biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), died in an auto collision on Monday, October 12th in Peterborough, New Hampshire. He was 63 years old. His wife, Regina, and his mother, Helen, were also killed in the daytime accident, along with the driver of the other car.
Born in Philadelphia, Lagakos earned a B.S. from Carnegie Mellon University and a Ph.D. from George Washington University. He joined the HSPH faculty in 1978 and chaired the biostatistics department from 1999 to 2006. He was Director of the HSPH Center for Biostatistics in AIDS Research and also served as statistical consultant to the New England Journal of Medicine.
Lagakos played an invaluable role in helping to establish HIV/AIDS clinical trials in Botswana. According to Dr. Max Essex, Chair of the Harvard AIDS Initiative and the Botswana-Harvard Partnership (BHP), “Steve was one of the earliest and most consistent faculty contributors to BHP. In our first major trial, Mashi, he suggested the factorial design that we used and served as a key investigator on the project. He was deeply involved in the Mochudi Project, which just began, and he was a key collaborator in the host genetics program. He was a brilliant scientist and a great friend.”
Dr. Ibou Thior, the first Project Director of the Botswana-Harvard Partnership and now Deputy Director for Enhancing HIV Prevention Programs at PATH, valued Lagakos’ assistance as the BHP was setting up its first clinical trials. “I especially appreciated his expertise, professionalism and serenity during heated debates on study designs and data analyses approaches,” said Thior.
Dr. Shahin Lockman, an HAI researcher, worked closely with Lagakos on the design of the Mashi Study for preventing mother to child transmission of HIV. “He guided and steered, planned and organized quietly behind the scenes to make sure that things were done at the highest standards scientifically and that they would also succeed on a practical level,” said Lockman. “In meetings, Steve would consistently raise key, provocative questions for discussion and would relish, rather than retreat from, difficult or confusing issues.”
“He clearly loved the study design process,” said Dr. Roger Shapiro, a principal researcher on the Mma Bana Study, which compared antiretroviral regimens for prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission among breastfeeding women in Botswana. “He was constantly thinking of new ideas and improvements for the studies he was working on. He provided trusted statistical guidance and a second opinion whenever it was needed and served as the primary connection between BHP and the statisticians at CBAR [Center for Biostatistics in AIDS Research at HSPH]. For all of this, Steve asked for nothing in return; helping others just seemed to be part of his job description. His heart was always in the right place.”
Dr. Vlad Novitsky, a research scientist at Harvard AIDS Initiative, worked closely with Dr. Lagakos on the Tshedimoso Study in Botswana which investigated the immune characteristics of individuals newly infected with HIV-1C. More recently the two worked on improving methodology for reliably estimating the HIV incidence in Botswana and other southern African countries. “Steve was so knowledgeable, creative, full of energy, and passionate about pursuing ideas,” said Novitsky. “It was a real pleasure working with him. Steve was just a great person.“
In addition to his far-ranging research efforts, Lagakos educated several generations of students who were devoted to him as a compassionate teacher and mentor. He had just begun a new training program in quantitative methods for researchers from developing countries, the John L. McGoldrick Fellowships. Dr. Lillian Okui, a native of Uganda who is currently working at the BHP, was one of the first recipients.
Kelesitse Phiri from Mochudi, Botswana, first met Lagakos when she arrived at HSPH as a Fogarty Fellow. Though a math major in college, Phiri didn’t have a background in biostatistics. Lagakos generously devoted hours of his time to explain methodology for estimating changing HIV incidence rate in Botswana. When Phiri later became a doctoral candidate in epidemiology, Lagakos helped her shape her thesis on pediatric AIDS. “What I remember most about Steve,” she said, “is his gentleness and his encouraging mentorship. May his warm spirit live forever amongst us.”