Strength in numbers

Octavious Smiley. Photo by Kent Dayton

3 min read

As a young child, Octavious Smiley would look forward to his older sister coming back from school and teaching him what she had learned in math class.

He also remembers always wanting to pursue a doctorate degree.

“I was interested in the Ph.D. before I even knew what it was. It was just the highest level of education, and my mom was always big on education,” he said. “This is me trying to make her proud.”

Today, Smiley is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biostatistics at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He is slated to graduate this year from the Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Beyond his own research in biostatistics, he is also dedicated to inspiring the next generation of minority students to enter the field.

A graduate of Morehouse College, Smiley studied at the Chan School from 2014 to 2017, completing a master’s degree in biostatistics before taking a break to gain work experience. He returned to the School in 2019 to begin his doctoral research. Working with his adviser, JP Onnela, associate professor of biostatistics, Smiley simulates data from people who have HIV, specifically the at-risk group of men who have sex with men. Each data point represents where HIV transmission could potentially occur — coming together to form what is known as a contact network. His results could inform the design of future studies of sexually transmitted diseases, which could in turn lead to better public health interventions to reduce the incidence of these diseases.

Smiley is open to pursuing different career paths in statistics research. But he’s also interested in staying in the classroom.

“At some point, I’d like to focus purely on teaching and mentorship in an academic setting,” he said. “I definitely want to be in a position where I can help those coming after me.”

When Smiley first arrived in Boston, he found himself looking for a welcoming, supportive community like he had at Morehouse.

“I’d be the only Black person on the bus, on the train,” he said.

Smiley started participating in a mentorship program through the city of Boston, where he met Black high school students interested in math. He wondered if he could bring them to the School to introduce them to biostatistics — how math can be applied to advancing public health.

A fellow PhD student, Alex Ocampo, convinced Smiley to bring the idea to Marcello Pagano, professor of statistical computing, whose probability class both had taken. The next thing they knew, they were launching StatStart, a biostatistics summer program for minority high school students.

Since its launch in 2014, dozens of high schoolers have participated in the program, which offers high schoolers coursework on the fundamentals of biostatistics and computer programming as well as an introduction to public health.

Smiley is also committed to setting the students up for success with college, scholarships, and jobs. “We haven’t missed a deadline on a letter of recommendation,” he said. “That’s what’s most important to me.”

Jay Lau