Meet Robert Tate, 2021 Honoured Alumni, Faculty of Science
Statistics is unique in that it could integrate with and transcend into almost every other discipline. This uniqueness is evident in Dr. Robert Tate’s body of research, having collaborated with individuals and teams in various fields of health and social sciences, locally, nationally, and internationally. Dr. Tate completed a BSc in mathematics at the University of Winnipeg in 1973 and an MSc degree in statistics at the University of Manitoba in 1975. Most notably among his work has been his contributions to the Manitoba Follow-Up Study (MFUS), the longest-running study of cardiovascular disease and aging in Canada. It started at the University of Manitoba in 1948, and in the 72 years of the project, 44 of them have involved Dr. Tate, more than 50 of whose publications come from this study. Today, as Director of the University of Manitoba Follow-up Study, Dr. Tate maintains an active research program, continuing to advance health science in the years to come.
We caught up with this Faculty of Science 2021 Honoured Alumni to learn more about his experiences, research and work.
Tell us what you do.
My introduction to the field of statistics came in the mid-1970s, at a time when the norm of classroom instruction was heavy on theory. Applied statistical analysis was undertaken with punch cards and a huge mainframe computer. I experienced first-hand the early years of the rapid expansion and uptake of theory into practice. This was happening a few years before PCs were common in offices and analytic power arrived on our desks. Still, there might have a modelling problem with clinical data that would take hours to code and overnight to run. Push the submit button at the end of a day, come back the next morning to see some results.
Housed at the University of Manitoba since 1948, the Manitoba Follow-up Study (MFUS) began as a prospective cohort study of the cardiovascular health of 3,983 World War II young male RCAF aircrew recruits. I’ve worked with MFUS in various capacities, starting in December 1975 with a 6-month contract to “put data into computer files”. I worked my way through the MFUS research team as a junior computer programmer, database developer and data manager, programmer analyst, doctoral student, research associate and am now the Director of MFUS. Analyses addressing MFUS research questions have been co-authored with staff, students and teams of co-investigators. MFUS continues today with a surviving cohort of fewer than 100 very elderly veterans. That any research project that can continue, uninterrupted, 73 years is quite remarkable and almost unheard of in medical research. The longevity of MFUS is unparalleled in Canada, and MFUS ranks with only a few others in the world in duration. Part of the success of this study comes from the dedication of the participants, and the dedication of the staff involved. As the cohort, aged new questions arose. I expanded the research focus of MFUS from a study of cardiovascular disease to one to include the epidemiology of other chronic conditions, challenges with healthy and successful aging, and end-of-life functional trajectories. The ability to recognize, revise and adapt initiatives to produce timely research results has been a mainstay of MFUS.
What are you most passionate about?
Every day in medical research is an exciting day. In the University of Manitoba environment, it never seemed like “going to work”. Throughout my career, I’ve collaborated with local, national and international health researchers resulting in over 160 peer-reviewed publications in journals of health policy, general medicine, epidemiology, cardiovascular disease and gerontology.
What is something you are most proud of?
I defended my doctoral thesis on my 47th birthday, 25 years after completing my MSc in Statistics.
What is something others would be surprised to know about you?
In the fall of 1975, after my MSc graduation, I was at home in Portage la Prairie working at a farm supply centre. A professor from the Statistics department phoned me to ask if I might be interested in a six-month contract position with some heart disease researchers at the Medical School. So, OK, I drove into Winnipeg, went to the Medical School, found the office of the Manitoba Follow-up Study, and knocked on the door. I was taken to the Medical Director’s office. My job interview went something like this …
Dr. Mathewson, sitting at his desk looking at some papers for what seemed like an eternity finally spoke: “Are you the boy they sent over from the University?”
Me: “Yes, Sir.”
Dr. Mathewson: “There’s your desk.”
Me: “Yes, Sir.”
That was day one of my 45-year career at the University of Manitoba. I filled out a job application form a few weeks later.
Have you experienced a Eureka moment in your life/or career? The “aha” experience– that flash of insight that suddenly explains something or shows us how to solve a problem?
My career parcels in two parts: the first 25 years as a statistician with a cardiovascular disease study and consultant with the biostatistics consulting unit at the Medical School, and the next 20 years leading research and travelling through academia. The Eureka moment came when I realized how exciting research can be, and instead of helping others with their questions, I’d address my own questions, in a Ph.D. program. The University of Manitoba proved to be an immensely supportive environment for me embark on the second part of my career.
The world of statistics offers exciting opportunities. A feature that sets statistics apart from other sciences is its ability to transcend almost every other discipline. Statistics is a science in its own right and is a proven valuable partner in the advancement of other fields. As a career statistician, I’ve collaborated with individuals and teams in almost every field of health and social sciences.
I was born in Portage la Prairie, MB, grew up there and always loved numbers. After High School graduation, a few of my classmates opted to go to university, some to U of Winnipeg, some to U of Manitoba. I chose UW at that time because UM seemed too big for a kid in a general undergrad program from small-town Manitoba. I majored in Mathematics. In my second year took one course in Statistics, and was hooked. I completed my BSc having taken all the courses UW offered in Statistics. An instructor there, Dr. Shirley Mills, was a marvellous mentor and had just completed her MSc in Statistics at UM. We all have influential professors on our academic paths, and she made the Masters’s program in Statistics at UM an easy next step for me.
What is your fondest memory of being a student at UM?
The MSc cohort in the Statistics department 1973-1975 began with about twenty students. By Christmas, the first term close to half were gone. I think we all underestimated how much work a graduate program would be. I graduated with a class of eight, we were a tightly knit group who most days were on campus from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm, leaning on each other.
Do you have any advice to offer current students?
Frustration and setbacks are something we will all face in our student life and careers. Get involved in an area of study that you care about, something that excites you, something that you are passionate about. Don’t show up on campus with an attitude of it’s just another class to attend. What you do during the few years you are there will set the stage for lifelong enjoyment.
You can learn more about Dr. Tate’s work and many other exciting career paths from several of our 2021 Faculty of Science Honoured Alumni at the Pathways to Exceptional Achievement Event on Feb. 4, 2021.
Alumni Speaker Panel & Q&A
Pathways to Exceptional Achievement – Careers in Science
2021 Honoured Alumni Awards
Feburary 4, 2021 at 3:30 PM (CST)
All are welcome to attend. (Virtual) Online Event. Please check your email for Zoom link or contact: foscomms [at] umanitoba [dot] ca.