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A Statistician’s Life

1 September 2009 7,294 views No Comment
ASA members are as diverse as the areas they study. In an effort to get to know our leading members better, we asked some of them to answer a few questions. Here, they tell us who inspired them and how they chose to be statisticians.

Jeffrey Mark Gonzalez

gonzalez

Degree(s)
BSPH in biostatistics from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2003)
MS in biostatistics from the University of Michigan (2005)
Currently a third-year PhD student in the Joint Program in Survey Methodology at the University of Maryland, College Park

Employer
Office of Survey Methods Research, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Current Title
Mathematical Statistician

What or who inspired you to be a statistician?
When I was an undergraduate at UNC, I began working at the university’s Survey Research Unit. At the time, my primary responsibility was to enter data from various surveys; however, my boss, Ashley Bowers, began teaching me about surveys. It was because of her enthusiasm for and breadth of knowledge about surveys that I really became fascinated with survey statistics. She took a keen interest in my professional development and was instrumental in my decision to pursue statistics and, in particular, survey statistics at the graduate level. So, I owe a lot to her with respect to my current educational pursuits and career as a statistician.

What is the hardest or most interesting thing about being a statistician?
The hardest thing about being a statistician is keeping in mind that, at the end of the day, we need to be able to convey a message to the public and our data users. I think that, as statisticians, we can tend to get caught up in our numbers and formulas, but we should really make an effort to remember others will use our information for a variety of purposes, some of which we haven’t anticipated. Therefore, it is essential that we provide enough information to make the statistical information transparent, useful, and informative.

What is the best career advice you were ever given?
It may sound cliché, but the best career advice I have ever been given is to love what you do and do what you love. I have been fortunate to find a career that I truly enjoy and am passionate about.

What is a skill you would like to learn to be better at your job?
One skill that I would like to learn to be better at my job is to work under production environment constraints. I think research is important, but unless it is feasible or can be operationalized in a production environment, then it might not be useful to the various survey programs here. So, it is taking more theoretical research and making it practical that I would like to learn how to do better.

Name one or two favorite books you have read and would recommend to others.
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Roberston
The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Given the current economy, would you recommend statistics as a profession to a student?
Most definitely, I would recommend statistics as a profession to a student. I think what students might fail to realize is that statistics is such a diverse field and has applications in many fields (e.g., public health, economics, surveys, etc.). I doubt the need for statisticians will ever go away.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I am an avid runner. Living in Washington, DC, there is no shortage of places to run and people to run with. In fact, I am an active member of a local running club, the DC Front Runners. In the past year, I have run four marathons and have two planned for the fall. My ultimate (running) goal is to shave three minutes off my best marathon time and qualify for the Boston Marathon.

Nandini Kannan
kannan
Degree(s)
MS in statistics from Madras University, Madras, India (1985)
MS in mathematics from the University of Pittsburgh (1988)
PhD in statistics from The Pennsylvania State University (1992)

Employer
The University of Texas at San Antonio

Current Title
Professor of Statistics

What or who inspired you to be a statistician?
My father has a mathematics and statistics background, so I was introduced to the area quite early. I loved probability problems, so when I had to make a decision between mathematics and statistics, I chose to pursue a statistics degree. I also met C. R. Rao at a conference in India when I was a student and he asked if I would be interested in pursuing a PhD! I decided to come to the United States to work with him.

What is the hardest or most interesting thing about being a statistician?
The applications are so diverse and far-reaching. I’ve worked with biologists, engineers, and psychologists. Every problem is different. You have to listen, learn a new vocabulary, and that can be a real challenge. It is what makes being a statistician so fascinating. The hard part of being a statistician is explaining what you really do for a living. People always bring up the “lies, damned lies” quote and you have to change their perceptions. We need to raise awareness of the discipline, the critical issue of quantitative literacy, and address the impact on science and society!

What is the best career advice you were ever given?
As part of the doctoral program at Penn State, I took a statistical consulting course. We had to work with clients (typically graduate students from other areas) to assess appropriate methodology for their projects. Professor Rosenberger gave me some simple pointers:

(1) Listen to the client; do not lecture.
(2) Projects are not opportunities to show off how much you know, but to provide statistically sound solutions that are simple.

This is advice I give my students every day.

What is a skill you would like to learn to be better at your job?
I love teaching and am constantly looking for ways to improve my lectures and make statistics more relevant. In this information and data age, all students need to understand and critically evaluate information and data to make better decisions.

Name one or two favorite books you have read and would recommend to others.

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Given the current economy, would you recommend statistics as a profession to a student?
Absolutely! The New York Times did a recent piece on statistics as a career. There is a real demand for individuals with expertise in designing experiments and analyzing complex data sets using the latest advances in computing.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
When I do have the time, I love to go bird watching with the local chapter of the Audubon Society. I also love listening to music and reading.

Jerry L. Moreno

moreno
Degree(s)
AB in mathematics from Lehigh University (1963)
MS in statistics from Michigan State University (1965)

Employer
John Carroll University, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science (1968–2008)

Current Title
Assistant Professor Emeritus

What or who inspired you to be a statistician?
I knew from grade school that I wanted to be a teacher, probably in mathematics I thought. No doubt my dad, who was a professor of languages at Washington and Jefferson College, had a considerable influence on my wanting to be in education (so also did my fourth-grade teacher). The choice of statistics as my primary area of expertise was a bit by chance. Having graduated with an undergraduate degree in mathematics, the question loomed as to what to do next. Vietnam was a choice; graduate school was another. So, off to Michigan State pursuing mathematics I went. But there was no area of mathematics that consumed me. (I had had one course in mathematical statistics at Lehigh, but had no clue that one could actually make a career in statistics.) During my first quarter there, I contacted one of my favorite professors at Lehigh for advice on what to do. He suggested that I talk with a colleague of his in mathematics at MSU. I did, and he suggested that I talk with someone in the statistics department (Jim Stapleton, as I recall). I did. I switched to statistics in the second quarter and fell in love with probability and statistics immediately.

Since I’ve turned this question into True Confessions, after achieving the master’s, the question loomed again: What next? The super-short version of the story, without violins, is that I went to the University of Sheffield with Joe Gani, who was asked to develop a graduate department in statistics and probability there. I never finished the PhD, [but] found employment at John Carroll University on a one-year contract that lasted a wonderful 40 years. I am eternally grateful to Carroll and to the ASA for the opportunities and rewards they have given me. I’ve been very, very fortunate.

What is the hardest or most interesting thing about being a statistician?
The most interesting thing for me in being a statistician has been teaching the subject and, particularly over the past 25 years, devoting my time and whatever talent I have been given to informing the K–12 community about statistics. I knocked on schools’ doors from 1968 to 1989, trying to get them to incorporate statistics into their mathematics curriculum. No takers. Then in 1989, NCTM (the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) published recommended standards that included statistics as an integral part of the K–12 curriculum. At the same time, the ASA’s Quantitative Literacy Series “hands-on” program caught my attention and was all I needed to begin what has turned out to be a very thankful and exciting adventure in serving the K–12 community. I can’t begin to relate how terrific my life in statistics has been in this service and working with an incredible number of very talented ASA members who are in statistics education. An absolute highlight has been in working on the ASA/NCTM Joint Committee in the 1990s and again currently.

As an aside, if the question had asked me for the “most gratifying” thing about being a professor, that would be hiring a former student, Tom Short, as my replacement. I couldn’t be more thrilled. Also gratifying has been teaching statistics and mathematics to several thousand students, who made my every day an absolute joy, over my career.

What is the best career advice you were ever given?
I was hardly the best student in undergraduate or graduate work, but my dad always encouraged me to do my best and to try to make a difference in other people’s lives. I hope I have.

What is a skill you would like to learn to be better at your job?
Over the years, I have asked this very question of my graduates as they return to campus to visit. Often, they have mentioned improving their ability to write and to speak as topics that they wish they had taken more seriously as an undergraduate. I wish also that I were better in these areas, for as I begin my retirement years, I am becoming more involved in advising the writing of statistics into state standards in mathematics, science, and social studies. Being able to articulate why it is essential that statistics be an integral part of school curricula and how that can be done in an already packed curriculum is a challenge.

Name one or two favorite books you have read and would recommend to others.
To be truthful, most of what I read is mathematics or statistics related. Apart from that, my favorite book is Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Given the current economy, would you recommend statistics as a profession to a student?
Absolutely, particularly in the health-related professions. Positions in industry in northeast Ohio, where I live, are not that open, but, for example, the Cleveland Clinic seems to be looking for biostatisticians often.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Apart from enjoying our five grandchildren, my hobbies are growing dahlias for competition and enjoying their incredible beauty in my garden in the summer and fall. In the winter, I enjoy HO model railroading. And I better include agreeing with MaryAnn’s (my wife’s) desire to travel. For example, we just returned from a terrific cruise of the Baltic Sea and are looking forward to Slovenia for ICOTS 8 next summer.

Janet Tooze

toozeDegree(s)
MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health
PhD in biometrics from the University of Colorado

Employer
Wake Forest University Health Sciences

Current Title
Associate Professor, Department of Biostatistical Sciences

What or who inspired you to be a statistician?
My mother, a nursing professor, actually told me about the field of biostatistics. I’ve always loved mathematics, and biostatistics has been a great way for me to combine my interests in statistics, medicine, and public health. Victor Kipnis inspired me to start working with dietary data, which are prone to measurement error, and his mentoring—along with that of Larry Freedman and Ray Carroll—has inspired me to continue working in this field.

What is the hardest or most interesting thing about being a statistician?
The most interesting thing about being a statistician is the challenge of figuring out the best way to analyze a problem and come to, hopefully, the ‘best’ answer.

What is the best career advice you were ever given?
I think the best advice I’ve been given is never to be afraid to take risks. Moving across the country can be a bit scary, but I’ve never regretted any of my career decisions. I also loved being a postdoc, and I recommend it as a good way to start your career.

What is a skill you would like to learn to be better at your job?
I think the most challenging thing, as a consulting statistician, is to manage multiple projects. I’d like to learn about how I can more efficiently manage my time and switch from one project to the next more easily.

Name one or two favorite books you have read and would recommend to others.
Hmmm … well, unfortunately, I don’t have much time to read these days. I do have a lot of children’s books memorized. Hippos Go Berserk is a favorite in our house right now; it’s a counting book in which 45 hippos have a party. I try to explain to my children that they can just use the formula for the sum of integers to count the hippos, but they’re not too interested.

Given the current economy, would you recommend statistics as a profession to a student?
Absolutely! I always encourage anyone with math aptitude to consider statistics as a profession. I think it’s a very rewarding career and will continue to thrive in the future.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I spend most of my free time with my family.

Geert Verbeke

verbekeDegree(s)
BS and MS in mathematics from the University of Leuven, Belgium
MS in biostatistics from Hasselt University, Belgium
PhD in science (biostatistics) from the University of Leuven, Belgium

Employer
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (University of Leuven)

Current Title
Professor of Biostatistics

What or who inspired you to be a statistician?
During my studies in mathematics, I became less and less interested in pure math and was constantly looking for courses in which mathematics was shown to have meaningful real-life applications. My professor of multivariate statistics (Paul Embrechts, currently at ETH Zurich, Switzerland) motivated me to pursue a master’s degree in biostatistics at Hasselt University. Simultaneously, I enrolled in a PhD program in biostatistics at the University of Leuven, under the supervision of Emmanuel Lesaffre (currently at Leuven and Rotterdam). Being able to immediately apply theory in the context of a big university hospital in combination with initiating my own research turned out to be very stimulating.

What is the hardest or most interesting thing about being a statistician?
In biostatistics, the hardest component of the job is definitely having to be able to communicate with clinicians from various disciplines in medical research. Correct application of statistical methodology requires sufficient understanding of both the context in which the data were collected and the key clinical research questions. Furthermore, it is important that the biostatistician can report his/her results in such a way that the clinician gets sufficient background with the methodology applied in order to correctly interpret the results, while not being overly technical.

What is the best career advice you were ever given?
To spend some time abroad. In 1991, I spent half a year at the Biostatistics Department of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

What is a skill you would like to learn to be better at your job?
Having better management skills would probably help me in my administrative duties within my department and my university.

Name one or two favorite books you have read and would recommend to others.
Scientifically: I often recommend the book Biostatistics: A Methodology for the Health Sciences by van Belle, Fisher, Heagerty, and Lumley, published by Wiley in 2004 (second edition). I consider this book a key reference in biostatistics for both statisticians and clinicians.
Other: I do not read much, but most of the books I read are novels by Stephen King. I very much appreciate the way in which he balances reality and science fiction.

Given the current economy, would you recommend statistics as a profession to a student?
Yes! I really believe that with the ever-growing amount of data collected in various areas of society, there will be even more demand for statisticians than is currently the case. This is also reflected in the fact that most university educational programs contain at least a few courses in statistics.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I do not have any particular hobbies. I often swim, and I like just spending time with family, friends, or colleagues. Going out for a nice dinner, or just having a drink together, are things I really enjoy. Traveling is also one of my favorites.

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