Ask most people, “Do you have a purpose in life?” and they’ll pause and stammer. Ask Victor DeGruttola and he answers, “To develop, apply, and use quantitative methods and quantitative thinking to defend the interest of vulnerable people.” His job as Chair of the Department of Biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) allows him to do those things every day.
Growing up, Victor wanted to be a physicist. “When I was young, I saw a movie by Frank Capra about cosmic rays and became fascinated with radiation. When I was a little older, I found a book about special relativity written by a Russian physicist. All of the examples were about a train going from Moscow to Leningrad. Between the exoticism of Einstein’s ideas and the exoticism of the train between Moscow and Leningrad, I was hooked.”
After majoring in physics at Brown, though, Victor realized he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in a physics lab. He earned a graduate degree in bioengineering, tried medical school, and taught high school math for a year. He came to HSPH in 1976 to pursue a Master’s in Epidemiology, found his calling, and never really left.
Victor started work on his ScD in Biostatistics at HSPH just as the AIDS epidemic was taking hold. He graduated, and after a Fulbright year in France and a postdoc, he joined the HSPH faculty in 1987. He now works on HIV/AIDS research in the U.S. and internationally.
Victor’s research focuses on developing statistical methods to address the natural history of HIV and the impact of treatment and prevention methods. He served as the Director of the Statistics and Data Analysis Center of the Adult Project of the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) during the crucial period in which highly active antiretroviral treatment (HAART) was developed. He is the Co-Principal Investigator on the Botswana Combination Prevention Project (BCPP), a clinical trial that combines several HIV prevention methods to try to significantly reduce the rate of new infections within communities.
“Victor’s great strength is statistical techniques, but he also knows how to ask important questions,” said Max Essex, Chair of the Harvard AIDS Initiative and Principal Investigator of the BCPP.
Victor bikes to his office at HSPH and spends his days teaching, meeting with students, and conducting research. He also contributes to the design and analysis of Harvard AIDS Initiative studies and clinical trials, ensuring they are statistically rigorous.
The most rewarding aspect of his job, he says, is training doctoral students, “getting them involved in real-world problems and in identifying and addressing the statistical challenges that arise in solving them.”
Biostatistics seems to be the perfect fit for Victor— it’s mathematically challenging, but also involves a lot of collaboration. “I guess I like it in the same way that I prefer bridge to chess,” said Victor. “It just seems to be a lot more social.”