URMC Mourns Loss of Biostatistics Chair

February 27, 2008

Andrei Yakovlev

With great sadness, the University of Rochester Medical Center mourns the loss of Andrei Yakovlev, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Computational Biology, who died early Wednesday (Feb. 27), at his home in Mendon. He was 63.

Since joining the University of Rochester Medical Center in 2002, Dr. Yakovlev led a major expansion in biostatistics. Tenure-track faculty grew from seven to 21 members, and sponsored research increased from $800,000 to more than $5 million annually, totaling $37 million over the past five years. Perhaps most importantly, however, he was known as a brilliant scholar and collaborator, always brimming with ideas that challenged conventional wisdom.

“Andrei was the answer to our hopes for a chair of Biostatistics and Computational Biology, the rare individual who had facility in both of these fields,” said David S. Guzick, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. “When we set out to hire a chair, we needed someone with the flexibility to work back and forth between mathematics, statistics and systems biology. We also needed a leader who could attract outstanding senior faculty and mentor junior faculty and students. He accomplished all of this in spades and did so by creating a collegial, welcoming environment.”

Last November Guzick attended a small gathering in Dr. Yakovlev’s department to celebrate five years of success and hard work. “I was struck by the genuine warmth. Andrei was very outspoken; he would say exactly what he thought – and that can be off-putting to some people. But everyone recognized that he cared about them deeply. He was remarkable.”

“His approach to work was both brilliant and inspiring to all who came into contact with him, and motivated us all to think differently about our research,” said Medical Center CEO Bradford C. Berk, M.D., Ph.D. “I personally worked with Andrei on statistical analysis of gene expression profiles and found his critical approach challenging, engaging and educational. His strong leadership has resulted in a thriving department, which will play an integral part in moving our strategic plan forward. We will all miss his passion and intellect.”

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Dr. Yakovlev became a citizen of the United States in 2005. During the 1990s he was a visiting professor at universities in France, Australia and Germany, and taught at Ohio State University and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Prior to arriving in Rochester, he was Director of the Division of Biostatistics at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City from 1998 to 2002.

While in Utah, Dr. Yakovlev began working on a series of landmark studies involving differentiation of stem cells with one of the best stem cell teams in the world: Mark Noble, Chris Proschel and Margot Mayer-Proschel. Eventually they all ended up in Rochester.

“Working with Andrei was one of the great scientific joys of our lives,” said Noble, professor of Genetics at the URMC. “He changed the way we thought about stem cell biology in profound ways. He was able to see great distances down the road of knowledge, and he was constantly coming up with new ways to solve problems that others had long dismissed as too difficult.”

His death is a huge loss for the scientific community, agreed Chris Proschel, a fellow stem cell researcher. “The hallmark of his mind was that he questioned everything, literally every assumption ever made, at the peril of running against the stream,” Proschel said. “He was as rigorous a scientist as I’ve ever met.”

Dr. Yakovlev’s research appeared in four books and almost 200 scientific papers, in mathematics, statistics, biomathematics and biology journals. He investigated stochastic modeling in cell biology, carcinogenesis, gene expression data analysis and survival analysis. Some of his work related to cancer and the survival benefits of screening and certain treatments, and prediction of clinical outcomes.

“His recent and ongoing research in methods of statistical analysis of gene expression data is extraordinary, discovering major flaws in widely used methodology and creating innovative methods to overcome them,” said Jack Hall, professor of Biostatistics.

Indeed, researchers who knew him well noted his ability to reshape thinking about medicine and science through mathematics.

“Before I met Andrei I never thought the world of numbers and probabilities could be fun and exciting and could fundamentally change the way I see experiments,” said Mayer-Proschel. “I will terribly miss his insight, his genius and his sense of humor.”

Dr. Yakovlev earned his medical degree in 1967 from the First Leningrad Medical School, a doctorate in biology in 1973 from the Pavlov Institute of Physiology of the Academy of Sciences, USSR, and a doctorate in mathematics from Moscow State University in 1981. In St. Petersburg, he chaired a department of Biomathematics (1978 to 1988) and Applied Mathematics (1988 to 1992).

He was an advisor to the World Health Organization and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (1992); a Fellow of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics (1998) and American Statistical Association (2000) and elected member of the International Statistical Institute (2002).

In addition to his professional accomplishments, friends and colleagues point out that Dr. Yakovlev was the life of the party. He liked to play piano and engage in lively discussions about art, music, politics and history.

Dr. Yakovlev was married and had two sons, one of whom died in Russia. He is survived by his wife, Nina, and a young son, Yuri. Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced.

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Leslie Orr
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