Jennifer Nelson, PhD

“We develop new statistical methods to help researchers and policymakers improve drug and vaccine safety surveillance systems worldwide.”

Jennifer Nelson, PhD

Senior Investigator and Director of Biostatistics, Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute


Jennifer Nelson is a biostatistician with expertise in methods to assess drug and vaccine safety and effectiveness. She is particularly interested in addressing methodological challenges that arise in post-licensure drug and vaccine safety studies that use large observational health care databases.

Dr. Nelson provides national statistical leadership as the methods core co-lead and senior statistician for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s Mini-Sentinel Initiative, a pilot project to facilitate development of an active surveillance system for monitoring the safety of all FDA-regulated medical products. She also serves as methodology committee chair for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-sponsored Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD), a national collaboration involving 10 managed care organizations that has monitored immunization safety in the Unite States since 1990.

As part of both the VSD and Mini-Sentinel projects, Dr. Nelson works with Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI) colleague Andrea Cook, PhD, to improve statistical methods for post-marketing safety surveillance studies of new drugs and vaccines. Their goal is to develop new sequential testing approaches that will rapidly and accurately identify adverse events not detected in pre-licensure studies.

In her vaccine effectiveness work, Dr. Nelson recently shed light on the limitations of the methods that previous epidemiological research used to assess the effectiveness of influenza vaccine in preventing illness and death in seniors. Her paper was the first to comprehensively describe the challenges in methods for assessing the public health benefit of influenza vaccine in the elderly; it was also the first to recommend specific new strategies to improve estimates of vaccine effectiveness. By sharing these statistical insights across a broad audience, she is helping bridge gaps between biostatistics and epidemiology and hoping to encourage widespread use of more rigorous methods and bring new, improved methods into the mainstream.

Dr. Nelson is an affiliate associate professor in biostatistics at the University of Washington (UW). She is also an invited member of the Vaccines Sub-Committee of the International Society for Clinical Biostatistics (ISCB), a group established to facilitate collaboration among statisticians working in vaccine research and disseminate statistical methods for vaccine research worldwide. In 2009, Dr. Nelson earned the VSD’s Margarette Kolczak Award for outstanding contributions in biostatistics and epidemiology in the field of vaccine safety. Before joining KPWHRI, Dr. Nelson served for four years as the deputy director of the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) Coordinating Center at the UW.



Research interests and experience

  • Biostatistics

    Post-marketing drug and vaccine safety study design and analysis; secondary use and misuse of large electronic health care databases for medical research; vaccine effectiveness study methods; sequential testing in observational data settings; methods to assess interrater variability

  • Vaccines & Infectious Diseases

    Biostatistics; post-marketing vaccine safety study design and analysis; influenza vaccine effectiveness in the elderly; methodological issues in large multi-site health care database studies

  • Medication Use & Patient Safety

    Biostatistics; post-marketing drug and vaccine safety study design and analysis; safety signal detection methods; methodological issues in large, multi-site health care database studies

  • Cardiovascular Health

    Biostatistics; statistical issues in multi-site, longitudinal observational studies; coronary artery calcium CT scoring methods

Recent publications

Glass JE, Rathouz PJ, Gattis M, Joo YS, Nelson JC, Williams EC. Intersections of poverty, race/ethnicity, and sex: alcohol consumption and adverse outcomes in the United States. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2017 Mar 27. doi: 10.1007/s00127-017-1362-4. [Epub ahead of print]. PubMed

Gruber S, Chakravarty A, Heckbert SR, Levenson M, Martin D, Nelson JC, Psaty BM, Pinheiro S, Reich CG, Toh S, Walker AM. Design and analysis choices for safety surveillance evaluations need to be tuned to the specifics of the hypothesized drug-outcome association. Pharmacoepidemiol Drug Saf. 2016 Jul 14. doi: 10.1002/pds.4065. [Epub ahead of print]. PubMed

Nelson JC, Wellman R, Yu O, Cook AJ, Maro JC, Ouellet-Hellstrom R, Boudreau D, Floyd JS, Heckbert SR, Pinheiro S, Reichman M, Shoaibi A. A synthesis of current surveillance planning methods for the sequential monitoring of drug and vaccine adverse effects using electronic health care data. EGEMS (Wash DC). 2016 Sep 6;4(1):1219. eCollection 2016. PubMed

Jackson ML, Peterson D, Nelson JC, Greene SK, Jacobsen SJ, Belongia EA, Baxter R, Jackson LA. Using winter 2009-2010 to assess the accuracy of methods which estimate influenza-related morbidity and mortality. Epidemiol Infect. 2015 Aug;143(11):2399-407. doi: 10.1017/S0950268814003276. Epub 2014 Dec 12.


Health Care Data Analytics Symposium

2nd Seattle Symposium on Health Care Data Analytics

October 23–25, 2016, Hyatt Olive 8 in downtown Seattle.

Vaccines & Infectious Diseases

New way to tackle vaccine hesitancy tested, found wanting

Group Health, WithinReach, Seattle Children’s, BestStart, Washington Department of Health partnered.

Read about it in News and Events.

Healthy Findings blog

Let’s Talk Vaccines—and the power of negative results

What we learned in new research on doctor-parent conversations about vaccines, from study coauthor Dr. David Grossman.