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International Experiences in Statistics

1 June 2012 1,914 views No Comment
This column is written for statisticians with master’s degrees and highlights areas of employment that will benefit statisticians at the master’s level. Comments and suggestions should be sent to Megan Murphy, Amstat News managing editor, at megan@amstat.org.

Contributing Editor
Eric Vance graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a triple major in math, economics, and statistics. In 2008, he earned his PhD in statistical science from Duke University and, since then, has been an assistant research professor at Virginia Tech and the director of Virginia Tech’s Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Statistical Analysis, where he leads a team of faculty and statistics students.

I traveled an unusual path to my current position as an assistant research professor and director of LISA (Virginia Tech’s Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Statistical Analysis). Before entering the statistical science program at Duke University as an MS/PhD student, I journeyed through 67 countries. I hope you are well on your way to forging your own path in statistics, and maybe after reading about my experiences and ideas for how statistics can merge with international travel, you will begin to work/think/travel internationally.

When I graduated with an undergraduate degree in math, economics, and statistics, I had no job. I had lots of ‘interview experience’ and many friends with jobs, but I was unemployed. I did, however, have a plan, and it was not to go to graduate school. In fact, entering graduate school straight out of college had not even crossed my mind. I intended to travel throughout Europe for three months and then come home and look for employment.

I bought a one-way ticket to Europe and set off with a college friend to backpack across the Mediterranean. After two months and many beaches, trains, museums, and youth hostels, my friend flew home and I discovered that traveling alone was not so scary. Nearly everywhere I went, I found myself in a community of travelers. Sometimes, I convinced others to join me toward my next destination, but I usually headed off alone and met new friends along the way.

The more I traveled and met people who described the other wonderful and exotic places they had been, the more I wanted to travel. I spent eight and a half months traveling through Europe, eight months in Australia and New Zealand, and six and a half months in South and Southeast Asia. I traveled cheaply (e.g., three months in India cost, in total, $900), and I sent my friends and family regular postcards and the occasional email (this was just before the ubiquity of Internet cafés) to keep them updated on my adventures. These updates paid off when I ran out of money and two family members offered to loan me money to continue traveling until I was ready to come home. I figured that through these loans, 23-year-old Eric was borrowing from 26-year-old Eric, and my 26-year-old self was saying, “Keep traveling, keep traveling, keep traveling!” So I did, until after exactly 700 days, I was ready to come home.

Eric Vance (left) and a biologist from Morocco discuss statistics at the Morocco/Mauritania border.

Not So Fast

About a year later, I traveled again, this time for seven and a half months through Central and South America. Twenty-five-year-old Eric was now borrowing money from his 28-year-old self. One day while hiking the Inca Trail on the way to Machu Picchu in Peru, I had just climbed a steep mountain and was waiting for my travel buddies at the top of an ancient cloud forest. The thought occurred to me, “I will never be too old for anything.” Right then, I made the decision to not let my age deter me from anything I wanted to do. So what that I was 25 and still hadn’t ever had a ‘real’ job. Who cared that it had been four years since I last solved an equation, did a proof, or programmed a computer? I didn’t care that if I went to graduate school I would be over 30 by the time I got my PhD. I had decided, right then, that I would never be too old for anything.

When I returned home, I studied for the GRE and hustled professors who barely knew me from classes 4–5 years earlier for letters of recommendation. I applied to six statistics PhD programs and visited five of them before leaving for my third international trip, this time to Africa for six months.

During my first full day in Africa, just minutes after I learned to never trust a man from Fez with a knife scar on his face, I stopped at an Internet café and read an email from Duke University informing me that I had been accepted into their statistics graduate program with the added bonus of a fellowship.

Statistical Consulting 101

My introduction to statistical consulting occurred at the border of Western Sahara (a former Spanish territory claimed by Morocco) and Mauritania while trying to hitch-hike a ride across the mine-filled border crossing.

A Moroccan biologist studying the Saharan desert fox learned I was a future statistics graduate student and asked me about sampling methods related to his research. He drew a diagram for me on the sand, and then I tried to explain a concept to him, but I found a ride through the minefield into Mauritania before we got very far.

I learned other lessons while traveling in Africa, namely, toilets flush counter-clockwise in Timbuktu, and, more importantly, African problems require African solutions. Even if I thought the bus system in Ethiopia was absurd and could think of ways to ‘fix’ it, any solution to a problem in Africa would have to come from someone with insider knowledge.

My international travel experience also helped me learn to listen to my intuition: Get out of the car now, yes even though you’ll be stranded in the middle of nowhere. Jump back into the boat, as there’s a man-eating shark swimming right toward you! Don’t worry about not being able to breathe, just relax and move your head to a different position when you want to breathe. Seriously, do not trust men from Fez with knife scars on their faces!

Maybe most importantly, my international travel experience helped me during graduate school. During my third year at Duke, a biologist studying social relationships in a population of African elephants came into the statistical consulting center. Since I had been to Africa, the director of the consulting center figured I must like elephants and asked if I would like to work on the project. Because I was familiar with elephants and the setting of the client’s study, that project led to a collaboration, and that turned into two chapters of my dissertation on social networks in African elephants.

Other Opportunities for Statisticians to Gain International Experience

    People to People

      Statistics Without Borders


          The American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has an “on-call scientist” program to connect scientists interested in volunteering their skills and knowledge with human rights organizations in need of scientific expertise. There are many human rights groups doing work overseas in need of statistical expertise that don’t know how statistics can be used to improve their work. Learn about their work and see how you can add value to it by using statistics.

            Also, check with your local chapter of StatCom, or start your own. Is there a local group planning to travel to a foreign country to build a school? Talk to them about what effect they think they will have. Maybe they’ll be interested in quantitative ways to measure it.

              Attend an international statistics conference.

                Take a six-month sabbatical and travel to a region of the world you’ve always wanted to see. Or take a few months between jobs to see the world. When traveling, you experience highs and lows that are not part of your everyday routine.

                The Gift That Keeps Giving

                International travel also has helped me in my faculty position at Virginia Tech. The many and diverse people I met while traveling has helped me be a better manager, teacher, and statistician. My experiences have given me ideas for how LISA can help expand the global impact of statistics by involving students in international research projects and educational exchange programs and building statistics capacity at universities in other countries.

                The first of three international initiatives in LISA is to involve statistics students in the study design phase, the data collection phase, and the analysis and interpretation phases of data-intensive international research projects. These on-the-ground statisticians understand the research objectives, know how the data will be analyzed, and are responsible for ensuring the data are of high quality to address the research questions.

                Last summer, LISA graduate student Mark Seiss spent 10 weeks in Mozambique as an on-the-ground statistician helping to design a household survey questionnaire, train local surveyors, and analyze and clean the survey data on a nightly basis to assess the effect of an economic development project to drill bore wells and install hand pumps in rural villages without access to clean water. His work was wildly successful and will be replicated next summer for the follow-up study of this impact evaluation. When more researchers with data-intensive projects hear about the value of statisticians in the field, more opportunities will be generated for students to gain this experience.

                The second initiative is to exchange graduate students at Virginia Tech with universities abroad to improve the training of statisticians in communication and collaboration. The idea is that an experienced lead collaborator in LISA, who will have collaborated with 20–40 researchers at Virginia Tech, can work in an international statistical consulting center for six months while a student from the international university comes to Virginia Tech to work in LISA.

                The third initiative is to help build statistics capacity in developing countries by training foreign statisticians in LISA to communicate and collaborate with nonstatisticians and support them with experienced collaborative statisticians in their home country to help local researchers design experiments, collect data, analyze data, interpret results, make decisions, and communicate the results and decisions to nonstatisticians. The idea is to identify a statistician from a developing country and train them in 21st-century statistics at Virginia Tech and LISA.

                Once trained, students can return as a faculty member at their home university and advertise their services to researchers as a collaborative statistician. To support the creation of a sustainable statistical collaboration center at the university in the developing country, one or more LISA students can visit, on a revolving basis, the new collaboration center for six months to help run the it, collaborate with researchers, teach 21st-century statistics, and spread the use of statistical thinking. In subsequent years, LISA can train additional statisticians from foreign countries to help grow the newly created centers or establish new ones.

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