Principal Investigator, BC Generations Project Head, Cancer Control Research Program, BC Cancer Agency

My name is John Spinelli, and I am a research scientist in Cancer Control Research at the BC Cancer Agency. My background is probably quite different than most of the scientists and physicians at the BC Cancer Agency, as I did not study medicine or any of the hard sciences. Instead, I received my training in mathematics and statistics.

For me growing up, there were only two seasons: baseball and winter. I spent hours playing little league or wiffle ball in the backyard, or just throwing the ball against the wall of our house (breaking many windows in the process). When I wasn’t outside playing, I was poring over the many statistics collected in baseball; and I spent my time developing better ways to measure the value of baseball players and understanding the role of chance in sports.

With that background, it’s not surprising that I ended up in statistics, but I only realized this after first trying engineering, education, social work and psychology.

After I obtained my Master’s degree, I was hired at the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver to be a programmer-statistician — I loved the work. I helped oncologists evaluate treatments, develop models to better predict how patients would do, and assist with the design of new studies. Much of this work involved the application of new statistical methodology to better understand what the data was telling us.

I was also working on studies to understand the relationship between the environment and cancer — this excited me even more. In particular, I worked on several studies to look at the effects of carcinogens in the workplace.

This soon led to me developing my own research studies, for example looking at the cancer risks in aluminum workers and farmers. I realized that I wanted to be an independent researcher, so I had to move on from the Agency at the time in order to pursue my doctorate in statistics; but I hoped to return to the Agency later on and continue pursuing my research interests.