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Black History Month
2020 Honoree

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Felicity T. Enders, PhD, MPH

Felicity T. Enders, PhD, MPH

Professor of Biostatistics

Head of Section of Clinical Statistics

Mayo Clinic

I always loved math as a child. I remember when I was around 12, my father introduced me to the unit circle. It all made sense, and I was surprised by “learning” those topics when I hit trigonometry. I also remember being a bit rowdy in math class. I fondly recall one teacher who solved that problem by giving me a book of logic puzzles. The deal was I was to sit in back and do those… quietly. When I took the GRE to get into graduate school, I realized that those logic puzzles had given me strong training I had received nowhere else.

However, my first freshman year college course in math convinced me not to go into this area. It was a terrible experience; a multivariate calculus class taught in sections. I couldn’t follow my section leader’s accent, and I stopped going, and I blamed the course for my near disaster. I even bombed the midterm and STILL didn’t go. But then the instructor gave me a deal; if my final exam was better than my midterm, my grade would be based only on the final. So… in the week before the final exam, I read through the entirety of the book, and found it made sense – and I aced the final! But I felt this was not a safe space, and I didn’t take any more math classes in college.

After college, I worked for a couple of years and then started a Master of Public Health degree at Johns Hopkins. My plan for this degree was to use it to get into a PhD program in Epidemiology. However, along the way I found myself falling in love with my statistics classes – emailing the instructor late at night about inconsistencies in the homework, then getting an answer back, and even the honor of having my assignment used as the answer key for the class. I didn’t make the connection myself though; I asked my stats professor for a recommendation for the PhD in Epidemiology, and he said of course he would, but would I consider applying for the PhD in Biostatistics. The rest is history.

After a postdoc, I landed at Mayo Clinic, an institution that has a LOT of data. I quickly developed as an expert in two areas; working collaboratively with physicians to help them find meaning in their data, and teaching statistics to physicians so they can do the simpler statistics on their own. I’m now a full professor, I’ve published well over 100 peer reviewed articles, I’ve taught over 1,000 students, and I’ve become the Head of the Section of Clinical Statistics. Along the way I’ve stopped teaching individual courses; instead I now oversee curriculum for our translational research track, which includes all our courses in statistics and epidemiology, as well as a host of other topics.

Along the way, I’ve learned that there were some key things that helped me out, in addition to my general comfort with math. I’ve always loved to read, and I became a strong writer through perseverance. One of my high school English teachers told me my book report read like a mathematics proof (no, I didn’t make the connection then either). Writing is essential for my daily life, now. I also have always had an innate tendency to treat everyone the same – probably because I am Black. Many people at the level I am now at treat people under them differently from those above them; treating everyone the same leads to high comfort and efficiency on the teams I lead. Finally, I am both organized and flexible.

I want to add that I did not address issues with diversity and inclusion (D&I) that I saw along the way during my path to the PhD and then to full Professor. I stayed focused on my career, and D&I work would not have helped my career. (I did always quietly mentor others, though.) As the only Black Professor in a department of over 500 people, my current academic rank is itself a change in the world. However, now that I have reached this stage, I have started research into how to make improvements more systematically. If you’d like to follow my work, consider following me on Twitter (@FelicityEnders) where I focus on D&I ideas.