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UW Department of Statistics Celebrates 50 Years

1 October 2010 1,306 views No Comment
Richard Johnson, Professor Emeritus


In June of 2010, the department of statistics at the University of Wisconsin celebrated its 50th anniversary with a research conference, Statistical Science—Making a Difference, in Madison, Wisconsin. Events honoring the founding of the department and the many achievements in statistics and science were featured.

The inspiration for a separate department of statistics came from several faculty members in the business school, school of agriculture, and other departments having a strong quantitative component. An international search for a chair resulted in George E. P. Box being appointed (1960–1991) as the founding chair.

Box’s first new faculty members included John Gurland and Norman Draper. His desire to have applications play a central role led Box to create a department in which some members held joint appointments with other departments. Toward this goal, he created joint faculty appointments for three students whose theses he had mentored: George Tiao (1962–1983), business school; Bill Hunter (1963–1986), school of engineering; and Sam Wu (1965–1979), mechanical engineering. He also started a long-running research program with professors in chemical engineering.

Many other professors strengthened the theoretical component of the program and led to its reputation for being strong and balanced: Jerome Klotz (1965–1999), Gouri Bhattacharyya (1966–1995), Richard Johnson (1966–2008), George Roussas (1966–1976), Steve Stigler (1967–1978), Grace Wahba (1967–), and Bernie Harris (1967–2002).

In 1967, the department moved into a new building shared by statistics, computer science, and an administrative computing group. Robert Miller (1968–2005), joint with the business school, and John VanRyzin (1969–1979), who guided an early group of biostatisticians, increased connections with those areas.

During this time, Box was doing pioneering work with G. Jenkins on time series. He also began the famous Monday night beer sessions at his home. Interested students and faculty would listen to a short presentation about a statistical problem and then discuss it. Often, results of implementing the suggestions that grew out of the discussions were reported in the following weeks.

The department developed a strong program over the next several years that featured a balance of theory and practice. Advances in time series, design of experiments, and applications in engineering continued. Greg Reinsel (1976–2004) and Jeff Wu (1977–1990) were important contributors to time series and design, respectively.

Brian Joiner (1974–1984), who developed a consulting lab, and Tom Leonard (1980–1995) and Robert Wardrop (1974–2006) were added to the department. The joint appointments held by Jed Frees (1984–1997) of the school of business and Tom Kurtz (1986–2008) of the department of mathematics strengthened those areas.

Over the years, the joint appointment positions became concentrated in biometry in the school of agriculture and biostatistics in the medical school. Current faculty members associated with the biometry program are Cecile Ane, Murray Clayton, Bret Larget, Brian Yandell, and Jun Zhu.

Full-time faculty members in the department are Doug Bates, Kjell Doksum, Wei-yin Loh, Erik Norheim, Zhigang Qain, Jun Shao, Kam Tsui, Wahba, Yazhen Wang, Chunming Zhang, and Zhengjun Zhang. Dave DeMets oversees statistical activities in the medical school, while Barry Storer, Michael Kosorok, and Jason Fine help strengthen the biostatistics program.

A new biostatistics and medical informatics department was created recently and includes Rick Chapell, DeMets, Sunduz Keles, Michael Newton, and Sijian Wang. Several faculty members in that department—including the current interim director, KyungMann Kim—have courtesy appointments in statistics. All graduate degrees are awarded through the statistics department.

Members of the faculty have published thousands of papers and more than 30 texts and monographs. They have seen 562 master’s degrees and 398 PhDs be awarded.

More information about the anniversary celebration is available on the department’s website.

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