Safo awarded selective McKnight Land-Grant Professorship

Kathryn Silverstein | February 8, 2023

School of Public Health (SPH) Assistant Professor of Biostatistics Sandra Safo received a 2023 McKnight Land-Grant Professorship, one of the most selective faculty awards at the University of Minnesota. The Land-Grant Professorship program is designed to support the work of the most promising assistant professors at a crucial point in their careers. Safo will receive a $25,000 research grant in each of the two years of her professorship.

Sandra Safo

The award acknowledges Safo’s accomplishments, her track record of innovative research and funding success, and her commitment to teaching, equity, and service.

“Dr. Safo’s funding record, research impact, and service is indicative of a rising star in the field of biostatistics,” says SPH Interim Dean Timothy Beebe. “I am thrilled that the University has chosen to recognize and support Dr. Safo’s stellar career path with this prestigious award.”

Safo’s interdisciplinary biostatistics research is breaking new ground by combining classical statistical modeling with modern machine learning so scientists can digest data from multiple medical sources in order to more effectively identify and predict disease. Her team seeks to understand the environmental and genetic factors of disease and how their interplay results in different outcomes in individuals and subsets of the population. Safo’s work is incredibly complex and involves “multiview learning” — integrating disparate data sources such as genomics, genetics, health records, and imaging into easy-to-interpret “views” with potential to identify therapeutic targets, disease causes, and individuals at high risk for specific diseases.

Her unique data methodology fundamentally advances our understanding of cardiovascular disease (CVD), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and infectious diseases. For example, her team identified novel biomarkers for CVD in people living with HIV and she is part of a national team of researchers working to identify the relationship between HIV,  COVID-19, and social determinants of health.

“I am extremely grateful to the University for this recognition,” says Safo. “My successes as a junior faculty have been made possible by the incredible support that I have received from the Division of Biostatistics, the School of Public Health, the University, and the statistical community,” adding that her graduate students have been instrumental in pushing forward her research on multiview learning.

Safo is also committed to advancing equity and diversity in biostatistics. Originally from Ghana, she serves as a role model for a group of students for whom there are few role models in the field. She mentors a team of female graduate students at the University of Minnesota, as well as promising undergraduate and high-school students from diverse backgrounds. She is breaking ground as a leader in the field of biostatistics in almost every way and is poised to have a fundamental impact on the way data is used to predict and identify disease.

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