An accomplished speaker of an unusual tongue: the R statistical programming language

An accomplished speaker of an unusual tongue: the R statistical programming language
Adam Hulman

Adam Hulman speaks Hungarian, English and German and is learning Danish. And there is another string to his bow: a language he uses on a daily basis but one that few people master—the R statistical programming language. He first encountered R in Germany at the University of Paderborn, as an Erasmus student in 2008. Now he uses the language at the Section for Epidemiology at Aarhus University to apply innovative statistical methods to explore risk factors and outcomes related to diabetes.

He is an epidemiologist (PhD) and applied mathematician (MSc), motivated by the wish to understand complex systems that drive the health of populations. High on the list of aims he hopes to achieve is to identify subgroups at high risk of diabetes that remained unrevealed with traditional methods plus facilitate to better communication and knowledge transfer between clinicians and statisticians.

When asked about his aims, Adam is ready with a list:

  • to introduce and apply state-of-the-art statistical methods to contribute to quality improvements in epidemiological research
  • to apply innovative methods to explore risk factors and outcomes related to diabetes
  • to ensure knowledge translation: ultimately to assist personalised risk prediction and prevention
Developed the online risk calculator for the Steno T1 Risk Engine

Adam works on a broad range of projects and has already demonstrated that he can achieve interesting results with clinical relevance. Amongst his past achievements is the development of the online risk calculator for the Steno T1 Risk Engine, an application for cardiovascular disease risk prediction for patients with type 1 patients. “Prediction models are abundant in the epidemiological literature, validation is seen less often, but translation into clinical practice is really rare”, he says.

Other achievements include a recent publication, with Adam as lead author, in Endocrine on the heterogeneity of glucose response curves during an oral glucose tolerance test. “We identified five different patterns with a statistical method called latent class analysis and found that the cardiometabolic risk profiles of the groups were remarkably different. This fits well with the current notion that diabetes is a heterogeneous disease and may reflect different underlying physiologies that need to be investigated further. Also, these patterns have to be linked to long-term outcomes before our results can have an impact in a clinical setting”, he says.

He also conducted a similar study in a cohort of Asian Indians. “Their (Asian Indians') diabetes risk is higher than in other ethnic group. Why? This is something I would very much like to investigate and translate into clinical practice: maybe they could benefit from different interventions.”

Mentee of Professor Daniel Witte

Adam was lucky enough to meet Daniel Witte, Professor of Diabetes Epidemiology at Aarhus University under a Danish Diabetes Academy grant. By chance they met in London, and Daniel became his mentor and main PhD supervisor. It was Daniel who introduced Adam to diabetes epidemiology. 

Daniel Witte was the leader of the epidemiology group at Steno Diabetes Center at that time, which gave Adam the opportunity to develop a scientific network in Denmark from an early stage of his career, while he completed his PhD in Hungary. “Many researchers from Steno Diabetes Center are still my strongest collaborators and play an important role in my research”, he says. Adam has also succeeded in creating strong collaborations within the Danish Diabetes Academy, among others with Visiting Professors Rebecca K. Simmons (University of Cambridge, United Kingdom) and Venkat Narayan (Emory University, Atlanta, United States) who became now collaborators on various projects.

After finishing his PhD, Adam went to McMaster University, Canada, to take up a postdoctoral position to investigate the role of maternal obesity and weight gain on pregnancy outcomes, but when Daniel Witte started to work at Aarhus University in January 2015 as a Danish Diabetes Academy Professor and was looking for a postdoctoral fellow, Adam considered it as a good opportunity to return to Europe, diabetes research and join Daniel's team.

His plans are clear-cut: he wants to create his own group within five years. Where this will happen, however, is less certain. ”I would be happy to stay in Denmark for the long-term, but would not exclude the option to return to Hungary at some point and take the gained experience home”, he says and adds, “No matter what, I will keep my strong international collaborations.”