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Where Will Your Next Stop Take You?

1 September 2011 3,921 views 2 Comments
There are many routes a statistician can take to reach an area to study. In an effort to get to know these routes, we asked a few ASA members to answer questions about the paths they took to get where they are today.

James J. Cochran (my friends call me Jim)
Bank of Ruston Barnes, Thompson, & Thurmon Endowed Research Professor
Louisiana Tech University
 

    

What or who inspired you to study statistics?

After receiving my MS in economics and my MBA from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, I was unable to find suitable employment in private industry, so I taught as an adjunct instructor of economics part time at Wright State for a few academic terms. An instructor position with the school eventually became available, and although it required me to teach courses in statistics, operations research, and computer programming that were outside my primary field of study at that time, I was thrilled with the opportunity to teach full time. After accepting this position, I soon realized what I enjoyed most about economics was the analytic aspect of the discipline. After teaching full time for three years, I left academia to direct the analytic services division of a large marketing research firm. This offered me exposure to potential new applications of statistics and operations research and also made me acutely aware of how much I missed academic life. When I returned to academia, I knew I wanted statistics and operations research to be the focus of my studies and academic career.

What is the most exciting part of your job?

Freedom and opportunity. Academic life gives me freedom to work on whatever interests me (within reason). My primary research focus is on problems and issues at the interface of statistics and operations research. There are countless opportunities for fascinating research—theoretical, methodological, and applied—in this area.

I also have had opportunities to work on several initiatives that have been interesting and satisfying. I have enjoyed serving as the founding editor-in-chief of the Wiley Encyclopedia of Operations Research and Management Science. The articles in this encyclopedia are well written and interesting, and I have greatly expanded my breadth of understanding of this discipline through this role. My excitement over this project is enhanced by the online version’s availability in developing nations for free or at a greatly reduced cost through Research4Life.

Working with colleagues to establish Statistics Without Borders (SWB) and co-chairing the organization through its first two years of existence and its involvement in Haiti, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mexico, and Central America was gratifying. My involvement with SWB has led me to work with UNESCO and the Ethiopian EPA, Ministry of Water and Energy, and Central Statistics Agency on preliminary efforts to establish an environmental and water statistics program in Ethiopia under the United Nations Development Assistance Framework. These cross-cultural collaborations on applied statistics projects are fascinating.

I also derive satisfaction from the international education initiative I organize and chair. These colloquia, cosponsored by INFORMS [Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences] and IFORS [International Federation of Operational Research Societies], are held in conjunction with conferences in developing nations, and they provide me with opportunities to work with friends and colleagues all over the world. (The colloquia have attracted participants from 45 nations and have been held in Montevideo, Uruguay; Cape Town, South Africa; Cartagena, Colombia; Jaipur, India; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Nairobi, Kenya.) I also recently was invited to work with other members of the ISI on initiatives designed to increase statistical capacity across Africa. These opportunities are very exciting.

Finally, serving on various ASA committees such as the Council of Chapters Governing Board and the Council of Sections has been rewarding. I also enjoy working with students at all levels—undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral. Students are fun to be around and they constantly challenge me to think more profoundly about statistics and operations research and further develop my understanding of these disciplines.

This is an exciting and rewarding time to be a statistician. The incredible amount of data that are now collected and stored has forced the rest of the world to catch up with us; we are now in great demand, and that trend will not reverse in the foreseeable future.

Name a few specific skills you need to do your job.

Strong analytic and communication (both oral and written) skills. And while flexibility, intense curiosity, patience, self-discipline, the ability to work on a team, and the ability to work across disciplines are not necessarily skills in the strictest sense, they are supremely critical attributes.

What is a skill you would like to learn to be better at your job?

All of the above.

Did you have a mentor? If so, what was the most effective advice he/she gave you?

My dissertation advisors, Marty Levy and Jeff Camm of the University of Cincinnati, have been tremendous mentors. Both stressed focus, interest, and persistence as key to a successful academic career, and they hit the nail squarely on the head. I also have benefited greatly from my relationships with many individuals (too many to name) in the statistics and OR communities and owe a great deal to these friends/colleagues.

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

I suspect you don’t want a list of statistics, operations research, or math books. I recently read and greatly enjoyed Charles Mann’s 1491 , Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963, and Nicholas Coghlan’s Far in the Waste Sudan: On Assignment in Africa and The Saddest Country: On Assignment in Colombia.

advice would you give to young statisticians just beginning their careers?

I would repeat the advice of Marty Levy and Jeff Camm: Stay focused, pursue your interests, and be persistent.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

In addition to spending time with my wife, I enjoy reading, fast-pitch softball, gardening and landscaping, watching movies, hiking, and traveling.

    

Chunqin Deng
Senior Director, Biostatistics and Data Management
Grifols, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina
 

    

What or who inspired you to be a biostatistician?

My initial work in public health prompted me to be interested in data analysis then become a biostatistician.

What is the most exciting part of your job?

When good results come out from the data or when a challenging statistical issue is resolved.

Name a few specific skills you need to do your job.

Broad knowledge not only in biostatistics, but also in regulatory requirements and the diseases we are studying.

What is a skill you would like to learn to be better at your job?

To be an excellent communicator who can explain complicated statistical issues to nonstatisticians.

Did you have a mentor? If so, what was the most effective advice he/she gave you?

Not specifically. However, I got effective advice from my teachers, PhD advisors, supervisors, and coworkers.

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

I maintain my own blog for issues in biostatistics and clinical trials to document what I learn and experience.

What advice would you give to young statisticians just beginning their careers?

Statistics can be applied in different areas, so be sure you find an area you enjoy. Also, think about how the data are collected when you draw a conclusion from the data.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

To be with my family and kids. Reading and writing my blog.

    

Francesca Dominici
Professor of Biostatistics, Harvard School of Public Health
Harvard University
 

    

What or who inspired you to be a biostatistician?

I loved mathematics, but the problem was I didn’t know what I could do with it, and that is when I discovered statistics. I particularly liked biostatistics because I enjoyed solving health problems and addressing health-related issues.

What is the most exciting part of your job?

Solving problems. I work in public health and find it exciting to be able to use statistics to improve the health of human beings. Doctors save lives one at a time. As a statistician, I can help answer big public health questions and save peoples’ lives all at once.

Name a few specific skills you need to do your job.

To be a biostatistician, you need to be driven, but also focused, good at math, and especially curious about science and medicine.

What is a skill you would like to learn to be better at your job?

I would like to be more patient. I am also working on learning to write better and communicate more clearly.

Did you have a mentor? If so, what was the most effective advice he/she gave you?

I had two mentors: Scott Zigler, former chair of biostatistics at Harvard, and Jonathan Samet of the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. The most effective advice I was given during graduate school was to go after very important questions. Do not be afraid to solve the very important, big problems.

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

I do not read blogs, but I do read the science section from The New York Times. It often gives me a good overview of important scientific problems.

What advice would you give to young statisticians just beginning their careers?

First, I would say find a good mentor in or outside the department. Prioritize, manage your time, and identify the projects you would like to lead. Focus the most productive time of day on those projects. Take ownership of projects. The biggest danger is getting pulled in very different directions; focus on one main project. Finish everything you start. Always publish. Even if it is not revolutionary, publish.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Right now, playing with my five-year-old daughter … all kinds of girly stuff, from dancing to shopping to chit-chatting. I also enjoy long-distance running.

    

Amy Gillespie
Associate Director, Global Scientific Programming, Head of Scientific Programming for Health Economics Statistics, Early Development Statistics, and Epidemiology
Merck & Co., Inc.
 

    

What or who inspired you to study statistics?

I took a probability and statistics course during my undergraduate degree and found it challenging; this challenge inspired me and frustrated me at the same time! As such, I worked really hard at understanding it, which led me to pursue an advanced degree in the field.

What is the most exciting part of your job?

I’ve been working in the pharmaceutical industry since 1996. Working in this industry is extremely exciting, rewarding, and challenging, as I know I’m a part (albeit just a small part) of the drug-development process and bringing medicines to people around the world.

Name a few specific skills you need to do your job.

Leadership, communication, quantitative and problem solving, innovation

What is a skill you would like to learn to be better at your job?

Last year, I was certified as a Six Sigma green belt. Moving forward, I would like to continue developing and applying these skills to ensure processes are lean and we’re working as effectively and efficiently as possible. A statistician’s educational background and skills are a natural fit for sigma methodology.

Did you have a mentor? If so, what was the most effective advice he/she gave you?

I’ve had various mentors during my educational and professional careers who have been very valuable to me—both teachers and colleagues. However, I believe most of my success is attributed to an extremely high work ethic that was instilled in me by my parents.

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

Well, right now I’m reading the Harry Potter series so I can keep current with my kids! I also enjoy reading the new ASA Section for Statistical Programmers and Analysts blog.

What advice would you give to young statisticians just beginning their careers?

I really feel it is important to not only develop statistical and technical skills, but also communication (both verbal and written) and leadership skills. Sometimes, the technical skills come easier for many of us, so development of these softer skills is even more important to be successful.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

This spring, I’ve been in charge of recording the stats for my son’s little league baseball team. It’s been fun learning about sports statistics! I also enjoy gardening, baking, watching and playing all types of sports, and spending time with my family.

    

Megan Mocko
Senior Lecturer
University of Florida
 

What or who inspired you to study statistics?

I took my first statistics class at the University of South Carolina with Lori Thombs (who is now at the University of Missouri). I will be the first to admit that I was not excited about taking my first statistics course in college; however, I loved it. I loved the blending of mathematics with science. Before long, I was adding statistics as a major and applying to graduate school in statistics. During one of Thombs’s office hours, I mentioned I was having a hard time deciding between teaching high school and pursuing a career in statistics. She told me that one of her previous students had combined these goals and was a lecturer at another university. Throughout graduate school, this was always in the back of my mind as my desired career path.

What is the most exciting part of your job?

I love working with challenging students. By challenging, I mean students who are trying hard, but just don’t get it. I love the “aha!” moments when those students finally understand. I also find it exciting to bring in current news articles to emphasize how important statistics is in our world. I feel a particular sense of achievement when one of my students brings in an example of statistics that they found in the news without being prompted.

Name a few specific skills you need to do your job.

Being a good communicator is very important, so I find that good written and verbal communication skills are critical. I spend most of my time writing emails, writing educational materials (labs, tests, and quizzes), and talking with students. Not only is it important to get your message across, but also to make sure the student understands you are hearing their point of view as well. This doesn’t necessarily mean I always agree with the student; I just agree to listen attentively. I teach very large classes (almost 2,000 students) and some smaller ones, from 25 to 300 students. I believe the key to success in all class sizes is being organized. In order for successful learning to occur, it is important to let the students know exactly what you, as the instructor, are going to do and what they, as the student, are expected to do.

What is a skill you would like to learn to be better at your job?

I feel very comfortable lecturing to hundreds of students in large classes and working individually with students during office hours, but I am naturally an introvert, so approaching new people at conferences and meetings doesn’t come naturally or easily for me and is not one of my strong points. I would like to learn to be more open with new people.

Did you have a mentor? If so, what was the most effective advice he/she gave you?

The person who has had the biggest impact on my teaching is John Spurrier, who has since retired from the department of statistics at the University of South Carolina. I commonly remember several of his pieces of advice such as, “Your goal is to make this the best course at the university.” Also, “If you find yourself with unused class time, you aren’t doing enough examples.”

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

I really enjoyed reading Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. I enjoyed reading about places where the society’s customs are so different from mine, but the thirst for education was still there.

What advice would you give to young statisticians just beginning their careers?

Learn to write effectively. As a student, I underestimated the amount of writing I would end up doing in my chosen career. Back as a statistics graduate student, I had no idea I would be spending 90% of my time writing once I started working.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

My favorite things to do in my spare time are to travel and to scrapbook the photos of our trips. I love experiencing new places and new cultures. I am always on the lookout for that next great place to visit. My favorite places so far are Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland, and Lake Bled, Slovenia.

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2 Comments »

  • Sahil said:

    I believe it should be Scott Zeger and not Zigler. Also he has always been at Hopkins and not Harvard.

  • Mauro said:

    Great picture,

    it’s a beautiful description of what a statistician does, and it could do
    a lot of good to the profession.

    Would it be possible to have it and reproduce it in a statistics webpage
    (for student and the general public), with due acknowledgment to the author?