Faculty Spotlight: Jenna Colavincenzo Carlson


Jenna Carlson (BIOST '17) is a familiar face to the Department of Biostatistics since receiving her PhD with us a few years ago. After finishing her PhD, she worked as a post-doctoral associate in the Department of Human Genetics for a year before joining us as an assistant professor in August. Dr. Carlson is an outstanding educator and researcher with expertise in both statistical education and in population genetics. 

Tell us about yourself...
I attended California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California for my undergrad. I began college as an architecture major but decided to switch to math because I loved the subject in high school. I took my first statistics course ever during my third year of undergrad and fell in love with the subject and decided to double major. I remember how stressful each of those decisions was then – I was so worried about delaying my graduation and all the time I had “wasted” – but it ended up being one of the best learning opportunities for me.  

I moved to Pittsburgh in 2012 to do my graduate work in biostatistics at Pitt Public Health. A few months into the program, I was convinced I was going to move back to my home state of California after graduation. Shortly thereafter I met my now-husband and Pittsburgh started to feel more and more like home. Now I can’t imagine living elsewhere. 

Tell me about your research interests and why you are passionate about this topic.
My research is primarily focused on statistical genetics and methods for detecting genetic sources of phenotypic heterogeneity. I am involved in projects studying orofacial clefts, obesity, and cardiometabolic traits. I think statistics is a great tool to begin to understand complex biological processes underlying these really complex traits! I am also very passionate about educational research and discovering the best, evidence-based ways to help students learn. 

What do you like most about teaching?
I love getting to share my passion for statistics with students, which is why I love teaching. I think everyone should have some fundamental understanding of statistics to better engage with their own research and the world. It is so rewarding to see the “ah-ha” moment when a student finally understands a concept and to feel like you are making a difference.

What is the most challenging part of your job? 
Imposter syndrome is a pervasive problem in graduate school and something I struggle with, especially as a junior statistician. A mentor of mine frequently reminds me that it gets better with time and advised me to keep a file of notes from others that inspire and encourage me to look through when I’m doubting myself. My faith also really helps me with this – I don’t believe that my value as a person is defined by my successes or failures as a statistician. 

Is there a book, show, or series that you enjoy in your free time?
Picture of Jenna Colavincenzo Carlson's dogI love the Harry Potter series and even named my dog after one of the characters (Luna). She is a certified therapy dog and hasn’t met a person she doesn’t absolutely adore.


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