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Twin doctoral degrees

Identical twins and December graduates Eric and Scott Van Buren will soon share something else in common: doctoral degrees in biostatistics from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. The two are now heading to Harvard University together.

Eric and Scott Van Buren.
With degrees from Carolina, Eric (right) is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health’s biostatistics department. Scott is bioinformatics scientist at the university.

Eric and Scott Van Buren have been close their entire lives.

They’re more than just siblings — they’re identical twins.

And this December, the Van Buren brothers will have yet another thing in common: doctoral degrees in biostatistics from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Eric and Scott will be among the 607 graduate students who will have their degrees conferred this winter.

“It hasn’t sunken in yet,” Eric said of graduating. “It’s something that I have always wanted to do, and now I’m thinking, ‘Wow, it’s actually happening.’ I always felt that I could do it, so I’m very happy.”

Sun Devils to Tar Heels

After graduating together from Arizona State University in 2013, the twins were hoping to stay together for graduate school, but it was more important to them that they made the right decision for themselves.

With similar academic interests, the brothers both decided that Carolina was the right place for them.

“UNC is one of the top places to do public health and biostatistics, so if it made sense for one of us to apply, then it probably made sense for the other to apply,” Eric said. “We weren’t going to go out of our way to go separately, but it was more of the idea that Carolina was one of the top departments, and we both had a good impression.”

“There are definitely good departments in general, but the one here at Carolina is definitely a great department,” Scott added. “I got good impressions academically from the department, but I also felt comfortable here. I like the Chapel Hill location, and it seemed like a good place to live.”

The brothers joined Gilling’s biostatistics department, with Eric studying single-cell sequencing and Scott examining differences in gene expression profiles.

“I found out about biostatistics and gravitated towards it because it’s doing statistical approaches, but it’s more applicable than plain statistical degrees,” said Scott. “I liked the fact that the problems that you would be applying your work towards would be something related to biology, genetics or public health.”

Despite moving across the country to a new place, Eric and Scott felt at ease adjusting to Carolina together. As twin brothers at the same school, they were often associated together, which some may think would have bothered their sense of independence. But they look at this unique experience in a positive light.

“It’s something that I’ve appreciated,” Eric said. “It’s been very helpful to have somebody that is in the same academic position as you, and you can work together on assignments. I couldn’t have imagined doing it any differently.”

They have different personality types, but they enjoy similar activities like going to trivia night on Franklin Street and watching sports. Their favorite memory as students was watching Carolina win the national championship game in 2017.

Drs. Van Buren

After graduating in December, they’ll be able to help each other transition to a new home once more. Both Eric and Scott have taken on new roles at Harvard University.

They haven’t moved to Boston yet due to COVID-19, but Eric started working remotely as a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health’s biostatistics department. He works on trying to integrate different kinds of data to improve the genetic understanding of complex diseases. Scott, on the other hand, started working as a bioinformatics scientist at the university. He does biostatistics support for a research team trying to discover the different cell types in the brain.

“It’s an interesting job in general, and it’s nice for me to be continuing on this type of job where you can always learn new things, and you can contribute to research that’s interesting and impactful,” Scott said.

While their road to the title of “doctor” was challenging, they couldn’t imagine going anywhere else to earn their doctoral degrees. Both Eric and Scott believe the academics, research and mentorship they received at Carolina was top-notch.

After a seven-year journey, they’ll finally have their doctoral diplomas.

“It’s nice to be here now, knowing you went through all your classwork and exams, and you have a long document of work that you, yourself completed, so in terms of what it means to get the Ph.D., it’s a nice feeling and the culmination of a long period of education,” Scott said.