L. Adrienne Cupples: In Memoriam
L. Adrienne Cupples, whose late-blooming love of higher math grew into a fruitful academic career spanning more than five decades of teaching and research, died January 13 after a long struggle with cancer. She was 77.
Known for her engaging, supportive classroom and compassionate guidance of students, Cupples died “quietly, peacefully, in her own house, in her own bedroom,” according to John Cupples, her husband of more than 50 years.
Cupples was an emeritus professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the School of Public Health, which she joined in 1981 and quickly became known as a teacher who relished all aspects of her role as a mentor.
“Adrienne was an amazing colleague and friend,” says Lisa Sullivan, associate dean for education and professor of biostatistics. “She was kind, empathetic, passionate, and always had time to talk, offer advice, or lend a hand. She was recognized repeatedly for her scholarly accomplishments and for excellence in teaching, but she was probably the most humble person you would ever meet. There simply will be no replacement.”
Cupples’ journey to becoming a renowned biostatistician was a circuitous one. In high school, she enjoyed math but, as she explained to the American Statistical Association (ASA) in 2020, she was convinced that “she had to be brilliant to do mathematics.” So instead of traveling a path she would eventually come to love, she pursued history and American studies as an undergraduate at Raymond College, part of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.
Raymond’s experimental three-year BA program, modeled after the rigorous small-group instruction at Oxford, offered Cupples the opportunity to explore a variety of subjects—including several classes in mathematics.
After earning her bachelor’s degree, she married and worked outside of academia for a few years, and then in 1968, she decided to take a few night-school math courses “just for the heck of it,” as she told the ASA. While raising two daughters, she earned a master’s and doctorate in statistics at Boston University.
“As her interest in mathematics grew, she focused on biostatistics because she concluded that it could be used as a practical tool for helping others,” wrote John Cupples in an online remembrance.
And help others she did. She developed a course, Statistical Methods in Epidemiology, which became an essential course for students in Biostatistics and Epidemiology, and served as the founding chair of the Department of Biostatistics. In 1989, she co-founded the Biostatistics PhD program at BUSPH, an innovative joint program between the Biostatistics Department and the Mathematics and Statistics Department at BU. During her time at the School, she helped advance the field of biostatistics through more than 600 publications in major journals, book chapters on collaborative and methodological research development, effective teaching of a wide range of biostatistics courses, and mentorship of numerous graduate students and faculty.
Cupples was a “superb teacher, mentor, and leader who took joy in the success of others,” says Howard Cabral, a long-time professor of biostatistics at SPH.
“Adrienne’s interest was not just in the academic, but more importantly, the personal—the relationship that she had with each student and colleague,” Cabral says. “She helped to foster the soul of BUSPH, the deep sense of community and commitment to improving the public health that I will carry forward into the future. We thank John, Amy, Alison, and their family for having shared her with us.”
In addition to her teaching, Cupples was a researcher on the Framingham Heart Study for more than 35 years, serving eventually as the Co-Principal Investigator of the landmark study. Early in her career, she developed research on Huntington’s disease, and later Alzheimer’s disease, which led to her interest in statistical genetics and the creation of genetic risk models for Alzheimer’s. Cupples also evaluated genetic contributions to lipid traits, adiposity, nutrition, and subclinical heart disease.
In 1995, she won the Norman Scotch Award for Excellence in Teaching, the School of Public Health’s highest honor recognizing a core element of the School’s mission. In 2010, she was the first recipient of the Faculty Career Award in Research and Scholarship, one of many awards collected during her time at SPH.
In April 2021, several of Cupples’ former students and research collaborators celebrated her contributions to the field—and to their careers—at an online ceremony honoring the 10th Annual L. Adrienne Cupples Award. The award is bestowed for excellence in teaching, research, and service in biostatistics.
Soe Soe Thwin, a manager of quantitative assessment and data management for the World Health Organization in Geneva, said, “Adrienne was instrumental in my journey as a biostatistician…. [She] created a relaxed learning atmosphere and was very engaging and thorough. She made sure that we understood our concepts and some years later Adrienne became my doctoral thesis advisor.”
Andrew Damokosh, currently a vice president of global biometric sciences at BioNTech SE in Cambridge, was one of the first students to matriculate through the biostatistics doctoral program that Cupples helped start.
“Throughout your career you meet lots of people who contribute to your career in all kinds of different ways, but, if you’re lucky enough, there are a few people who are truly impactful and certainly, Adrienne falls into that category,” Damokosh said.
Her start as a non-traditional student juggling family life and academia gave Cupples an uncommon empathy to those undergoing the same struggles. “When I first joined Boston University [in 1991] as a PhD student in the biostatistics program, she was the first person I met on my arrival,” said Manar Elsheikh Abdelrahman Elhassan, an associate professor of biostatistics in the Department of Public Health, College of Health Sciences, Qatar University.
“From her I got my inspiration to be an educator. She was my support during my time at BU, some of which were difficult times, particularly having a newborn child to care for on my own. She taught me to be strong, calm, patient, and most importantly, persistent.”
In a letter to the SPH community, Dean Sandro Galea wrote, “Such moments remind us of the importance of the people in our lives, never clearer than when we must say goodbye. It has been a privilege to know Professor Cupples and to learn from her. She will be deeply missed.”