Meet Peng Liu, MS grad, PhD candidate in biostatistics


Peng Liu (BIOST '16 '21) is from Guangzhou China, where he got his bachelor’s degree in preventative medicine at Sun Yet Sen University and then began working for the FDA. After working for a couple of years, Liu didn’t feel like he was doing the work he’d intended when he went into preventative medicine. He felt his work focused on problems, not people. And he wanted to do research based on his interests.

Now, four years into his doctoral program at Pitt Public Health, he knows that he chose the right path. “I have learned a lot in this program. Not only knowledge but also skills in research, communications, and collaboration, all kinds of things – including teaching. I enjoy making progress and working hard.” And he was right – he really likes doing research.

“I started doing research in the second year of my master’s program and that’s where I started to feel like research is kind of exciting and I enjoy doing it. My advisor at that time was Dr. Jonathan Yabes, who is also a graduate of our program and who is now working in the medical school. He helped me a lot and is a very nice person. I like the challenge – especially when the research is new and there are some tangible problems to solve.”

Liu is motivated to solve problems and take on challenges. The program is challenging, he says. “My hair turned white!” he jokes. He has to attribute some of that to his three and half-year old son too. “I am also taking care of my baby and my family. I’m here to support them.” It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth the effort. He loves it, so it’s enjoyable. Fulfilling.

It helps that he’s learned the importance of work-life balance. “Probably in my first couple of years, we didn’t do much [for fun].” But Liu and his wife, Shan, learned that it’s necessary to spend time not doing work – including getting some exercise. Now, every weekend they do something as a family, like swimming, going to the zoo, or camping. Recently, they went to Irons Mill Farmstead in nearby Mercer County, which his son loved. “He’s a really happy boy – always really happy about everything. I’m jealous about the fact that he has no worries.”

His advisor, George Tseng, understands work-life balance too and is supportive. “That’s probably what I appreciate the most – is the people, especially advisors – that I see here are very nice and really good people.” The people – his mentors, instructors, advisors, and lab mates inspire and motivate him as well. Yes, it’s busy, but they are supportive of each other and his advisor understands that he has a young family.

The city of Pittsburgh has also proven to be the right fit. “I think Pittsburgh is a very beautiful city. It’s very friendly.” From multiple offers, Liu chose the University of Pittsburgh partly because of the city. He knew it would be a good place to live. He hopes to stay here upon graduation, although he says it all depends. He’s open to jobs both inside and outside of academia as long as there is some research component. Although, he points out, “It depends on what offers I get, right?”

Now, Liu is working with high-dimensional data with multiple projects going in a few different directions, including grouping patients. He’s working with all kinds of mixed high dimensional genomics data. He also gets to collaborate with other departments like the Department of Pathology and the Department of Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital. For his thesis, Liu is focused on the xxx subgrouping of patients based on their high-dimensional data features – work that he finds quite interesting.

To anyone thinking about getting a degree in biostatistics at Pitt Public Health, Liu wants them to know that this is a good program with a lot of good career opportunities in either industry or hospital settings. The master’s program is mostly coursework but there are opportunities to do research, and it’s a great place to go on to get a PhD as well. “I think our department has many of the best professors in the room that I highly recommend. They are fantastic people and there are a lot of interesting projects that you can jump into.”

Liu is a 2016 winner of the Lingzi Lu Memorial Award, and last year he won Best Student Paper from JSM, the Joint Statistical Meetings of the American Statistical Association. He currently has a paper submitted to ENAR for which he has won a national distinguished paper award.   

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