Statistics at the White House
As an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut, I was a research assistant for Evelyn Thoman in the biobehavioral sciences laboratory. She was conducting research on neonates, and I was responsible for analyzing respiratory tracings as an aid to identifying the various sleep states of the neonates. Our focus was on early sleep and respiratory patterns and how they developed over the first few months of life.
At that point, I was a pre-med student, but a tragic event changed my career path. One of our subjects died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Following the death, we dug deeper into the data and discovered the SIDS infant had extreme respiratory instability with long and erratic episodes of apnea. Finding that we could correlate physiological data with SIDS changed my life; from then on, I focused on statistics.
My graduate work was at the University of Washington, where I did research with premature and handicapped infants at the child development clinic. My goal was to complete my doctorate and take an academic position in which I could conduct research and teach. I earned my doctorate in applied statistics, but the job scene was dismal at the time.
A chance encounter at a party resulted in another life change. I met a woman who was an active duty officer in the U.S. Navy and a cryptologic officer. When she found out I had quantitative analysis and computer programming skills, she asked me to stop by her office for a talk. I did and soon was on my way to the Navy’s Officer Candidate School to become a cryptologic officer.
My first duty assignment was at headquarters, Naval Security Group Command in Washington, DC, where I performed analyses to identify potential vulnerabilities of U.S. Navy communications, radar, satellite, and weapon systems to electronic warfare measures and other forms of attack. The Naval Security Group primarily supported the National Security Agency, so my work was highly classified. It was exciting and challenging work. During a system test of the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System off the coast of Virginia in February 1983, I was aboard the USS Antrim when an off-course drone struck the ship and killed a civilian.
One day in early 1984, I was ordered to the White House to be interviewed for a position on the National Security Council staff. Richard Beal was special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director of crisis management support and planning on the National Security Council staff. He was building staff for the newly established White House Crisis Management Center (CMC). He selected me to join the team. It was one of the most exciting days of my life when I learned I would have the opportunity to serve my country at the White House.
Beal was a visionary, who sought to use the latest in digital technology to rapidly acquire, process, analyze, summarize, and report current diplomatic, military, and intelligence information for the National Security Council during crises. He had witnessed first-hand the deluge of data and information that flows into the White House during a crisis and realized the tsunami of data and information could not be adequately handled with the methods then in place.
The CMC was equipped with the most sophisticated computers and software for scanning the tens of thousands of electronic messages arriving daily. I was asked to develop algorithms and systems to scan the electronic data to detect patterns and trends of national security significance. Given the sensitive nature of this work, I cannot go into the technical details, but can state that statistical methods played a critical role in the successful development and deployment of the systems used.
I was part of an elite team of handpicked military personnel and civilians from the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, National Military Command Center, State Department, and other agencies dedicated to providing the president and other members of the National Security Council with the best support possible during times of international crisis. During a crisis is not the time to develop new systems and processes; the work must be done before the crisis so you are prepared to act fast when one begins.
It was an honor to work with such a talented team and truly exciting to use my statistics training and experience at the White House. To date, I have not read of or met another statistician who served at the White House in a role similar to mine. The work was demanding, with 14-hour days and weekend duty being commonplace. I served there for two years and was awarded the Presidential Service Badge and Defense Meritorious Service Medal, as well as a special commendation from the special assistant to the president for national security affairs for support during a crisis.
After my duty at the White House, I worked as a statistician at Boeing, GE Global Research, and Amazon.com. I currently work at the Ecolab Research Center.
Today, there are even more opportunities for statisticians to serve the country in both the military and intelligence agencies. The intelligence data streams are larger than ever, and advanced statistical and data mining methods are required to handle them. I ask you to seek out opportunities to apply your statistical skills to help your country. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for me.