Black History Month: Kaleab Abebe

Issue Date: 
February 18, 2008

A Love of Numbers: Kaleab Abebe lives and works in parallel worlds where numbers mean everything—and nothing


Numbers. Kaleab Abebe, a doctoral student in Pitt’s Department of Statistics, studies them, searching for the pattern, meaning, and effect of quantities on specific outcomes. Too many or too few of certain factors can have a subtle yet far-reaching influence. Numbers can mean everything, even when people think they mean nothing.

But growing up as an African American in Goshen, Ind., taught him exactly the opposite.

In the year 2000, of every 100 Goshen residents, 1.5 were Black. His family alone had more than twice the latter. They were indisputably in the minority in Goshen, but Abebe and his brother learned that, in some cases, numbers have only the value people assign them.

“I know that I’m a minority, but I never wake up and say ‘Today will be rough because I’m Black,’” Abebe said. “There are too many people who think that way, and it’s a detriment to them. My parents said that I can’t be naïve about racism, but neither can I use other people’s feelings as an excuse.”

Abebe laughed. “Maybe that’s why my brother and I did so well in northern Indiana.”

Now, at 26, Abebe realizes the irony of pursuing a career in statistics where, sometimes, race means a lot. As does age, health, and environment. He works to find meaning in classifications that his parents raised him to find meaningless.

Abebe’s doctoral work comes during an impressive tenure in Pitt’s statistics department, according to Satish Iyengar, his advisor and a Pitt statistics professor and department chair.

“At this early stage, I can say that Kaleab has qualities that bode well for a successful research career,” he said. “He is certainly curious. He knows what he does not know and readily seeks out help when he needs it. When addressing a problem, he studies it thoroughly before planning a course of action. Research is a highly social endeavor, and he fits this environment very well. Our graduate director (statistics professor Leon Gleser) calls him a natural leader who gets things done.”

Abebe knew little about Pittsburgh or the University before moving here in 2004. He earned his bachelor’s degree in math at his hometown’s eponymous Goshen College in 2003 and enrolled at Pitt after his wife, Alyssa, began the physician assistant graduate program at Chatham University.

Once he began his studies, the caliber of research in Pitt’s statistics department impressed him. Abebe credits the department’s research-intensive environment for helping his work. He earned his master’s degree in statistics at Pitt in 2006, the same year his wife graduated from Chatham with her master’s degree. They now live in Highland Park. Abebe hopes to defend his dissertation by the end of next year and pursue a career in research, possibly as a university professor.

The son of an Ethiopian father and an African American mother, Abebe says his perception of race is a combination of awareness and dismissal. It is rooted in one parent growing up in a Black nation where color really did not matter and the other enduring a nation where race meant everything.

If asked, Abebe talks about being African American in Indiana, in general. As his parents taught him, he clearly puts little stock in it, feels neither exceptional nor cursed. Sometimes it mattered, mostly it didn’t, and his life progressed. He’s far from out-of-touch with his roots. His father came to the United States in the 1970s with every intention to return home.

Instead, he stayed and raised a family, but named his sons as if in his homeland: Ashenafi and Kaleab (pronounced “kah-lahb”), meaning “The Word of God.”

But Abebe prefers discussing his work, the numbers and their meaning.

In a tight cubicle on the Cathedral of Learning’s 26th floor, Abebe pores over statistics on drug trials administered at clinics across the nation. He focuses on trials for antidepressant medications that include a therapy component.

Abebe wants to gauge the effect that patient demographics and site-specific characteristics—such as the medical specialty of a particular clinic—have on the effectiveness of treatment. He’s trying to develop a means of quantifying the influence of those factors.

Abebe started his research a year and a half ago after being introduced to a meta analysis—a statistical technique that combines the results of several studies—by his advisor, Iyengar. Iyengar and colleagues at UPMC’s Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic had assessed the efficacy of antidepressant medication compared to the risk of suicide in adolescents with depression. The findings were featured in the Journal of the American Medical Association in April 2007.

One pattern that surfaced showed that as the number of trial sites increased, the effect of treatment decreased. Abebe began investigating the cause and realized that as a trial involves more sites with differing demographics, those characteristics clash.

Now he strives to find out why and how.

“Most investigators want to get as many sites involved as they can, but this analysis suggests that the more sites involved, the treatment effect actually decreases,” Abebe explained. “If you keep adding sites, the variability from site to site will be so great that it will mask the true treatment effect. I’m trying to find out the cause of this degradation and the best way to quantify it.”

As it is, Abebe’s idea contradicts conventional wisdom regarding multi-site trials—and it could set a new guideline in conducting drug trials, a sentiment shared by Iyengar. “Multi-site studies are increasingly common, so I expect that Kaleab’s thesis work will have wide applicability in clinical trials,” Iyengar said.

Ethiopia. Abebe’s father, Zenebe Abebe, told him that he rarely experienced racism day-to-day growing up in Ethiopia.

“Me and other African Americans will never know what that’s like, to not know racism and then to have a point where we discover it—it’s always been there to us,” Abebe said. “But not for my father, and that influenced how he raised us.”

Conversely, color defined every aspect of his mother Barbara’s youth in Memphis, Tenn. She grew up in the mode of segregation, coexisting without interacting. Like her future husband, she lived in a Black world, but one to which she was relegated.

In the 1960s, that social order was in upheaval in Memphis and cities across the South. In her senior year of high school, Barbara attended class with White students for the first time. Boiling racial tension exploded in 1968 with the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. Riots emanated from Barbara’s hometown and consumed more than 100 American cities over the next month.

Abebe’s mother took from this that racism, a very real and destructive force, will endure at some level. But, again, a person can refuse to be tethered to it.

“My parents raised two African American boys in a mostly White county—in a mostly White country for that matter. They had to instill that in us,” Abebe said. “People have bad experiences, but you can only dwell on that for so long.

“That’s the way I live.”