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A Statistician’s Journey

1 September 2013 579 views No Comment

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.

Nancy Bates Nancy Bates
Senior Researcher for Survey Methodology
U.S. Census Bureau

What or who inspired you to be a statistician?

Well, I don’t consider myself to be a statistician. I’m a survey methodologist with, at best, a cursory understanding of social statistics. That said, I pursued graduate studies that included statistics because of a social statistics course I took in undergraduate school. I loved learning different statistical methods that could be applied to solve real-life problems.

What is the most exciting part of your job?

I love exploring data sets and testing out different hypotheses. It’s somewhat like peeling an onion … the answer is rarely on the surface, but more often several layers down.

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

Critical thinking. Statistical programming. Keeping up with the academic literature. Developing a thick skin doesn’t hurt either.

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

My programming skills have eroded over the years. I should probably learn R, but I’m too lazy.

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

Earlier in my career, I was lucky to work for three ASA Fellows—all of them women. They include Cynthia Clark, Elizabeth (Betsy) Martin, and Pat Doyle. They didn’t give me advice so much as give me opportunities to learn and advance.

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

I don’t follow blogs. I love Patricia Highsmith and Jeanette Winterson. Written on the Body is probably my favorite book.

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

Work an internship. Volunteer for the tough assignments. Join professional organizations, then get involved in committees and run for offices. Attend the conferences so you can present your work and meet colleagues to collaborate with.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Playing outdoor Ping-Pong and training for occasional races (running barefoot)

Robert GibbonsRobert D. Gibbons
Professor of Biostatistics, Departments of Health Studies and Medicine, Director of the Center for Health Statistics
The University of Chicago

What or who inspired you to be a statistician?

Life is a lot like learning to ski; it is a series of linked recoveries. My path to statistics is no exception to this rule; in fact, it is a product of it. I was living in Colorado and was a pretty good skier. I was taking the instructor class at Vail, which was taught by two professors of geology at The University of Arizona who taught in the summer so they could take the winter off and teach skiing. I was immediately attracted to this idea. The only thing I was good at was math and, at the time, I was taking a statistics course and thought it was ridiculously easy. Path of least resistance … become a statistics professor and teach skiing in the winter. No brainer. I did the first part, but unfortunately grew up and never did the second.

What is the most exciting part of your job?

Two-fold, but always linked to applications. I really enjoy interactions with substantive scientists who have interesting problems in need of some statistical solution. But the best part is when the solution needed does not exist, leading to the development of a fundamentally new statistical solution to an interesting problem. I teach this in my class, statistical applications at The University of Chicago, where, after the second week, I invite university faculty to present problems to the class that are causing them statistical nightmares. As a group, we work on their solutions. Very much in the spirit of Paul Meier, Lincoln Moses, etc.

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

Well, you need to be reasonably good in mathematics, but, of course, that fades with age (like everything else). Mostly, you need to be a good listener and really be excited by what you do. Lincoln Moses said that you need to have “a good data-side manner.” I think this is really important. I think an often overlooked component of statistical research is implementation. There are so many amazing ideas and methods that never flourish because they are published and forgotten. If you have a really good idea, you have to sell it so it becomes a part of practice and, in turn, other statisticians will improve upon it. Often, this involves the dual publication of papers in both statistical and applied journals. I also think it is important to know how to program in a real language, not just a statistical package like R or STATA or SAS. In this way, you can develop programs that implement new methods that can be offered widely (and often freely) to practitioners who really need them.

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

I would like to continue to grow as a teacher. Much of my early career involved mentoring students, but not teaching. Now that I have returned to The University of Chicago, I teach regularly and really enjoy it, but I have a lot of room for improvement.

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

I was fortunate to have several great mentors from several areas of the statistical sciences at The University of Chicago: Darrell Bock from education and the behavioral sciences, Jim Heckman from economics, and David Wallace from statistics. Darrell taught me to be thorough in my statistical work and the importance of disseminating my statistical contributions through the development of computer programs that ultimately lead to widespread use of your ideas. Jim taught me the importance of letting important public policy problems motivate your statistical work. David taught me that there are a great many ways to solve an interesting statistical problem and the best one is not always the most statistically complex one.

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

Two of my favorite books are Darrell Bock’s book Multivariate Statistical Methods in Behavioral Research, originally published in 1975, and Joe Fleiss’s book Statistical Methods for Rates and Proportions, originally published in 1973. There are, of course, far more modern treatments of these subjects, but I consider both of these to be foundational contributions.

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

Statistics is like dating; you should marry for love, but hang around wealthy people. If you are going to go to the trouble of doing applied work, make sure you work on something that matters. Statisticians spend way too much time working on problems that are just not that important. It is just as difficult to work on an unimportant problem as it is to work on an important problem, so focus on important problems. Be passionate about your work. Passion is infectious.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

What spare time?

Jo HardinJo Hardin
Associate Professor of Mathematics
Pomona College

What or who inspired you to be a statistician?

When I got to college, I thought I wanted to be an actuary, and then I fell in love with my undergraduate institution. My statistics professor, Don Bentley, helped me to know that I could do statistics and be at a small liberal arts college at the same time. I am incredibly happy teaching at a small college, where I believe I get the best of all worlds (research, teaching, good students, great community).

What is the most exciting part of your job?

Working closely with undergraduates. At Pomona, we have bright, engaged, and incredibly interesting students. It is my pleasure to work closely with them in the classroom, doing research and discussing life. I am constantly in awe of all their ideas and accomplishments.

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

Much of teaching and research boils down to being a good communicator. And like everything else in life, being a good communicator takes practice. Anyone looking to build skills should try to find opportunities to present themselves: give talks, present research, write-up research (in both academic and general audience venues), teach classes, practice communicating as much as possible.

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

Despite tenure, teaching awards, and other accolades, I have a tendency to second guess myself and come across as less knowledgeable than I am. Every day, I work on being more confident, and as Sheryl Sandberg would say, “Leaning in.”

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

My closest mentor is my post-doc advisor, John Crowley, CEO and statistician at Cancer Research and Biostatistics. He taught me to care about how my work fits into the larger community of scientific research. While working with John, I saw the immediate impact our work had on clinical decisions affecting cancer patients. The world needs people who understand applied and quantitative science and who care enough to put them together.

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

One of my favorite books is Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. It is a fascinating true story of a boat that sunk in 1857 carrying California gold back to the East Coast. (Though nonfiction, it is a page turner!)

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

Just say, ‘Yes.” Many years ago, I was given the same advice by Joe Gallian, a mathematician at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. You can’t possibly know the impact of a particular committee, project, or opportunity until you’ve done it. Throughout my career, some of the best ideas for my teaching and research have come from the most unlikely places. Sometimes, completely inopportune tasks have been incredibly valuable for networking, generating ideas, and providing balance in my professional life.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

My favorite spare time activity is running, which is the most gratifying way for me to turn off my brain. I ran my third marathon last year, and I hope to be able to run more in the near future.

Cheryl PammerCheryl Pammer
User Experience Designer
Minitab Inc.

What or who inspired you to be a statistician?

I was working on my undergraduate degree in math education at Truman State University and really enjoyed the probability and statistics class I was taking with Dr. James Guffey. Dr. Guffey offered me the opportunity to work on a research project using the randomized response technique to estimate rates of cheating behavior among college students. I became so interested in the field of probability and statistics that I abandoned my plans to become a high-school teacher and decided to go on to graduate school in statistics at Penn State.

What is the most exciting part of your job?

A tremendous amount of data exists out there, most of it being analyzed without the help of a degreed or accredited statistician. As a designer of statistical software, my main goal is to promote good statistical practices by presenting appropriate choices to the software user and displaying results in a meaningful way. It is exciting to know that the work I do makes a difference in how thousands of people will use and interpret the data they have.

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

The most important skill I need to do my job is a real understanding of the problems practitioners are trying to solve so I can find ways to guide them to the correct solutions. To do this, I need a strong understanding of both the real-world statistical problems as well as the appropriate statistical techniques that will adequately solve these problems.

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

Keeping up with the latest research on how people interact with software is a high priority for me. The field of user experience design is fairly new within the software industry. There was a time when computers were only used by highly technical people. Now, everyone is using a computer and expectations have risen in terms of making software intuitive and easy to use.

Understanding what type of work needs to be done on what type of device is also important, because people are starting to do some of their work outside of a desktop computer environment.

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

I have had too many mentors to mention by name. I am very fortunate to work in a highly cooperative, team-oriented environment with many helpful, smart people. Some serve as my statistical mentors, others keep me connected with the latest ideas around software design, and yet others are great role models with regard to their leadership skills.

Probably the best advice I ever received was to recognize what you don’t know. No one is an expert in everything. Whether you are performing data analysis or solving some other business problem, it is often advisable to run your ideas by a few colleagues. When you access the collective knowledge of others, you will not only continue to learn, but you will also be equipped to provide better solutions.

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

This is biased, of course, but for a relevant and entertaining look at current applications of statistics, I have to give a shout out to the Minitab blog.

My book recommendation would be Bellwether by Connie Willis. It is a fun, light read with a main character that happens to have a PhD in statistics. (It’s not often that a novel highlights the work of a statistician, right?)

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

It’s an exciting time for a statistician. Companies are collecting more data than ever, so there is no shortage of data to be analyzed. But, data analysis is as much of an art as a science, and the only way to become proficient is to practice. I would recommend taking every opportunity you can to analyze real data. For example, look at a friend’s dissertation research or find the data talked about on a news report and do your own analysis.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I enjoy reading, quilting, biking, and spending time with my husband and three children.

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