Xiangning Dong

Xiangning Dong discovered the MS in Biostatistics and Data Science program at Weill Cornell Medicine (WCM) in 2022 after completing her bachelor’s in bioinformatics. She had been passionate about pursuing a career in biology since high school but developed an interest in data analysis and machine learning during her undergraduate studies. The program at WCM seemed like a perfect fit for merging those skills. 

“We live in a big data world. Biology alone is extremely interesting, but doing computational work to understand it allows it to be that much more powerful,” she explained.  

She moved from China to begin the program, and Dr. Xi Kathy Zhou, program director and associate professor of biostatistics in population health sciences, was especially helpful in her process of securing a visa. WCM was Xiangning’s first choice in schools, given the emphasis on statistical training in the master’s program. At the start of the fall semester, she was swiftly met with a different academic pace she was accustomed to.  

“When you take courses in undergrad, the first class is usually an introduction to the course. When I took my first course in the master’s program, we were asked to write code on the first day. We learn and apply material very quickly,” she said. 

Though the adjustment was challenging, Xiangning preferred the practical approach to learning. She also appreciated that her fellow students came from different educational backgrounds, whether mathematics, biology, economics, or otherwise. With these contrasts, they successfully helped each other complete challenging assignments. 

For Xiangning, the process of developing her portfolio project was a significant highlight of the program. Her project centered on tumor mutational burden, or the total number of mutations found in the DNA of cancer cells. She utilized various statistical methods to identify a threshold number for mutations that would inform whether patients were suitable candidates for immunotherapy treatment. Dr. Zhou met with her regularly to provide feedback and suggestions.  

“She helped me through every step, corrected my mistakes, and showed me how to apply the material from class in a meaningful way,” Xiangning said. “My portfolio project ended up being really valuable in my job interview process. Every interviewer had questions about it and shared positive feedback.” 

Xiangning also worked with Dr. Wodan Ling, assistant professor of population health sciences, throughout the program. When she started her fall semester, she emailed several professors about how she could potentially support their work and was drawn to Dr. Ling’s research. She helped Dr. Ling develop a new model for microbiome data, and after graduating in 2023, is still actively involved in performance testing and maintaining the research pipeline.  

Xiangning now works as an associate computational biologist at the University of Michigan. She feels prepared to apply statistical knowledge to her role as a biologist. Her responsibilities are varied, and include processing raw data, data analysis, and differential gene expression analysis.  

“Fight for your own opportunities,” she advised. “They won’t just come to you. The projects I worked on helped a lot with my job search and made the transition to my career much smoother. Don’t be afraid to contact your professors. They are willing to help and provide projects for you.”