Taylor Mahoney did not expect to go to college. Born and raised in Charlestown, a historic neighborhood just across the river from downtown Boston, Mahoney hails from a single-parent, low-income household. Many students, by virtue of having siblings or parents who attended college, see higher education as a natural progression from high school. But for Mahoney, “that’s just not the way it was. College was never really in my plans.”
Today, Mahoney is a PhD candidate in biostatistics in the School of Public Health. She researches adaptive design in clinical trials, a relatively new class of trial that allows sponsors to make design changes after an interim review of the data; this flexibility can make such trials more efficient, informative, and ethical, as they often use fewer resources and require fewer participants.
For the past five years, she has taught the University’s Summer Institute for Research Education in Biostatistics, or SIBS. She’s a research assistant at the Boston University Statistics and Consulting Unit, where she works on trials and observational studies with data from the Framingham Heart Study. She also received this year’s honorable mention for the American Statistical Association’s Gertrude M. Cox Scholarship, an award for women in statistically oriented professions.
But Mahoney’s academic resume is belied by her enduring humility, which has its roots in her experience as a first-generation student. “That’s a really important piece of my identity, and it’s shaped my entire experience of higher education,” she says.
When she talks about her college experience, Mahoney describes a dizzying and often exclusive world, one populated with students who come from educated backgrounds. The myriad obstacles for first-generation students are not always obvious, as many appear in the small details of university life rarely mentioned at college orientations.
“In my first general biology course, the professor told the class about what we’d take ‘next semester.’ And I thought to myself: What does she mean, next semester? I thought there was only one a year,” Mahoney laughs. “But it’s a daunting feeling. I thought the textbooks I bought in September would be good for a year, until I realized that I’d have to buy textbooks again in January. You’d be surprised about the things people don’t know when they don’t come from an educated family.”
Mahoney received a full-tuition scholarship for an undergraduate education at Simmons University, just down the road from BU’s Charles River Campus. “Coming from a low-income family, I don’t think I would have gone to school were it not for that scholarship,” she says. The road was not easy. “I had to work almost full-time to pay for undergrad. Everyone else was able to enjoy dorm life, their weekends—they got to do what normal college kids do. That wasn’t my reality. Which is fine; I don’t mind. I worked hard in school to make an income, and I feel it’s served me well.”
To Mahoney, “work” meant more than a late-night homework assignment. It was material, real-world labor performed alongside already-difficult academic commitments. In high school and into college, she worked as a head cashier at a local grocery chain. She held work-study positions as a tutor, grader, and administrative assistant. She was a customer service supervisor at Whole Foods. This experience is not uncommon for first-generation students, she says. “I don’t know if everyone recognizes that first-gen students will be some of the hardest workers in the room.”
Her work commitments notwithstanding, Mahoney found space to excel academically. Her story is defined by chance encounters that, when met with her initiative and willingness to jump into unfamiliar worlds, produced a profound impact on her academic career. As an undergraduate, she heard a presenter utter the word “biostatistics” in one of her seminars. Without hesitation, she walked to the registrar’s office and changed her major, “still not knowing what it was, but knowing it was for me.” That interest led her to SIBS, a funded program which allows undergrads to learn about biostatistics over the summer—the one she now teaches as a graduate student. “I don’t know where I would be without SIBS. In that class, I realized that I wanted to drive a research team; and to do that, I needed a PhD,” she says. As with college, Mahoney’s plans for graduate school were not preordained. They formed only as she deliberately carved a place for herself in higher education.
But this made it difficult at times to explain to her friends and family back home what she wanted to do. College is already an exclusive world, but as Mahoney tells it, PhD programs can be even further removed from the lives of working-class people. It took until her third year in grad school to find another student who didn’t have parents who went to college. “I often say: Where I come from, P, H, and D are just three letters in the alphabet. But they really are three life-changing letters, if that’s what you do—if you end up ‘making it,” she explains. It was also difficult to articulate the kind of doctor she wanted to become. “When people hear ‘doctor,’ they think medical doctor. People think you’re going to be practicing on people, and I’m practicing on numbers.”
Mahoney found herself caught between the stigma in higher education surrounding first-generation students, and the uncertainty of her community surrounding the career she was about to pursue. To make things more complicated, Mahoney could not afford a master’s degree; she needed to go straight into a funded PhD program if she was to stay in school. It was this complexity that made her acceptance to the PhD program at SPH all the more gratifying. “Getting that acceptance letter was a great feeling. It was so unexpected, from my perspective. Hundreds of people applied, and in my year, they only took six. It made me feel like everything I’d done in school had paid off, that someone had recognized it.”
Mahoney talks a lot about the unexpected. She uses similar language to describe her award from the Cox Scholarship—something she didn’t see coming. While it may have been unexpected for Mahoney, those around her would have expected nothing less. She credits professors like Lisa Sullivan, Joseph Massaro, and Howard Cabral for nurturing her interest in biostatistics and, specifically, adaptive design clinical trials. These professors quickly saw Mahoney’s potential and were the ones who encouraged her to apply for the Cox Scholarship—in Mahoney’s words, because they “thought I might be a good fit to nominate.”
In their words, Mahoney was more than a good fit; she was an exceptional candidate and scholar. In her nomination letter to the scholarship committee, Professor and Chair of Biostatistics Josée Dupuis wrote that Mahoney “has great leadership skills and is a wonderful mentor to her fellow students. For example, she organized and led a discussion session for faculty and staff about the challenges of low socio-economic status students and first-generation students.” Dupuis added: “I am confident that Taylor will have a long and productive career and will continue to make impactful contributions not only to the field of biostatistics, but also to improving diversity and inclusion in our field.”
As for her contributions to the field, Mahoney hopes to work with the pharmaceutical industry to design new and efficient clinical trials. Her work will help deliver life-saving drugs to people who need them the most. While her plans are bright, Mahoney sees her coming graduation from SPH this fall as bittersweet. She has spent much of her life in higher education. It was a path that she did not—could not—expect, but she championed it all the same. “If I could go back to that lecture hall where I realized that I had to buy books twice a year, I would tell myself that I do belong, that this is for me and people like me; I would tell myself to keep pushing, because I deserve a seat at the table of higher education.”