Faculty spotlight: Suzanne Dufault, PhD

Could you describe your research?
I am a biostatistician so the areas of application may vary, but mostly I'm just trying to solve fascinating questions posed by brilliant people with math. A lot of my colleagues have a single passion, and I can get passionate about anything that's exciting. Most of my research is in clinical trials, and in that space, I'm usually working with people who are trying to solve an infectious disease-related problem.

Clinical trials are the gold standard of good evidence, but one of the things I love about the new wave of clinical trials is that we are recognizing that there are really important problems that [either] don't have as much funding or that we couldn’t detect with traditional clinical trial standards. Some have major challenges logistically and ethically, and that's true with infectious disease studies. We're saying, well, what could we do? What can we find out?

The first major clinical trial I worked on was related to the prevention of dengue, a virus spread by mosquitos. What we were doing was kind of vaccinating these mosquitoes so that they couldn't get sick. Now, if I give you a flu vaccine, I can follow up with you and identify whether or not you get sick, and that will tell me something about the efficacy of the vaccine. But with mosquitoes, I can't do that. We had to come up with a creative way to statistically relate the exposure [to the vaccinated mosquitos] to the outcome that we care about, which is human disease. My role was to identify how we could do it in a way that was cost-effective but robust.

Were the mosquitoes genetically modified?
No. It's the most amazing thing I've ever heard of. The World Mosquito Program team and a lot of other brilliant scientists have figured out how to introduce a bacteria called Wolbachia into the mosquitos. It is present in 40-60% of insect species naturally, and it prevents the dengue virus from replicating within the mosquito. One of the hypotheses is that it outcompetes the virus so there's no viral load for the mosquito to transfer to you. And the bacteria goes directly into the mosquito’s offspring.

Our study was done in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, which, has really a long history of endemic dengue and is now on the verge of elimination – it's incredible! There are sites all over Southeast Asia and some in South America where they're now trying to roll out the same thing and seeing really incredible results.

What made you fall in love with statistics?
I have always loved intersectional thinking. All through high school I never could really say with confidence what I wanted to do because I loved English and history and science and math, but the math didn't seem to have any applications the way that I experienced it. It just seemed like a bunch of puzzles you would solve.

Statistics was the first place where I sat down in the classroom and within the first day I had a professor who just went straight from how to do it to an application. It was that first day when it all clicked that these aren't just random puzzles; these are related things that I really care about.

I did my PhD at Berkeley and I finished my PhD in May 2020. I was going to start a post-doc in Melbourne, and the pandemic kind of disrupted all of that. Fortunately, I was able to continue kind of a remote postdoc during the first year of the pandemic with Melbourne. But it just became clear to me that that wasn't sustainable from a team science or interdisciplinary perspective, which is what really keeps me coming back to it.

I started to look for other opportunities, and Patrick Phillips at UCSF was working on tuberculosis. When I read the posting, I was like, is TB even a thing now? And then I found out it's the number one killer of all infectious diseases. He was looking for someone who was interested in innovating phase 2 studies, and it was that same kind of idea: We've got logistical and ethical hurdles that are keeping us from providing the best care. I started with him in November 2021. I joined Epidemiology and Biostatistics in June 2023.

Do you have a favorite research paper? It could be yours or it could be someone else's.
If I picked one of mine – as part of a huge team – it would be the dengue work that published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Because there are no other super effective methods for preventing, much less treating, dengue, the impact that paper has had has been insane. I mean, it led to me sitting as a part of a team advising the WHO vector control advisory group. We got to sit in and pitch why the WHO should get behind this method. And local governments around the globe that are experiencing dengue outbreaks now have this evidence at their fingertips to say why they should be spending their resources on this.

Do you have a career or research goal for, say, the next 5 years?
I'm just starting here at UCSF, and I’m starting a lot of exciting new partnerships in areas I've never really explored before, including radiation oncology and atypical fractures. It feels like the world's a playground. We're doing meaningful work, and I want to continue to do that on teams that love what they're doing.

Is there a non-academic accomplishment that you're proud of?
I do have a passion for teaching, and I am hoping to get more involved in that as I stay at UCSF longer. I think part of the joy of working on interdisciplinary teams is not necessarily teaching my colleagues, but doing effective cross-communication. I love that, and I know a lot of people don't. It feels like a nice little niche to be in.