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ASA Leaders Reminisce Sally C. Morton

1 December 2016 257 views One Comment

In the 20th installment of the Amstat News series of interviews with ASA presidents and executive directors, we feature a discussion with 2009 ASA President Sally Morton.

Jim Cochran
Sally Morton

Sally Morton

Sally C. Morton is dean of the College of Science and professor of statistics at Virginia Tech. She previously served as chair of biostatistics and directed the Comparative Effectiveness Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh. Before joining Pitt, Morton was vice president for statistics and epidemiology at RTI International. She began her career at the RAND Corporation and was head of RAND’s Statistics Group. Morton’s research broadly concerns statistics in health policy; most recently, she has focused on evidence synthesis and patient-centered comparative effectiveness research (CER). CER answers the question, “What works best, for whom, and under what circumstances?” Morton is currently a member of the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute Methodology Committee and Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Evidence-Based Practice Center Program Methods Steering Committee. She also has served on several National Academy of Medicine committees, the Census Scientific Advisory Committee, and the National Academy of Sciences Committee on National Statistics.

Morton was president of the ASA in 2009 and chair of Section U (Statistics) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2013. She is a fellow of both organizations. She holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematical sciences, a master’s degree in operations research, and a doctoral degree in statistics, all from Stanford University, as well as a master’s degree in statistics from the London School of Economics.

Q: You have held several leadership roles during your career—at RAND, RTI International, the University of Pittsburgh, and now Virginia Tech. What are your views on statisticians in leadership?

A: My principle view is we need more! The ASA has been very active in providing training for statisticians interested in leadership, and I encourage individuals to partake of this training and other opportunities, including on-the-job training by serving in ASA positions.

Statisticians, especially those early in their career, should recognize that not all leadership is by position (e.g., a director of a group or chair of a department). Some leaders emerge during collaborative work, and statisticians are particularly well-suited and prepared to engage in this type of leadership naturally on team projects. Statistical training—for example, how to communicate with nonstatisticians, measure and evaluate, translate questions into statistical designs, and so on—is particularly helpful in such leadership roles. As a profession, we need to be proactive by encouraging and embracing these roles, as well as training the next generation of statisticians to be successful leaders. In this way, we can have the most impact on the world.

Sally Morton with Ingram Olkin at his 90th birthday party during JSM 2014 in Boston

Sally Morton with Ingram Olkin at his 90th birthday party during JSM 2014 in Boston

Q: As dean at Virginia Tech, you lead a large college and maintain an active research agenda. How much time do your administrative duties leave for your research and work on statistics projects, and how do you guard the time you devote to research? What tips can you offer to someone who is taking on an administrative role and wants to remain active in research?

A: I was excited to join Virginia Tech a few months ago, and I am still figuring out the optimal balance between administrative, research, and personal responsibilities. As a dean, my focus is on my colleagues’ careers, and not my own. That said, I do think leaders should be visible professionally and lead by example, and I enjoy being a statistician. Most of my statistical contributions at present are through service on national committees, with a little health policy project work on the side, as well.

I don’t pretend to have the answer for how to balance responsibilities, but learning good time management is essential. When I was chair of biostatistics at Pitt, I devoted one day a week to administrative meetings, and if a task could wait until then, it did. That said, when someone needs to see me, particularly a student or early-career faculty or staff member, I always try to make time. I keep my door open and welcome colleagues into my office whenever I can, and I also manage by walking around. I also try hard to delegate both responsibility and authority to others. Delegation requires not only allowing someone to do a task, but also giving credit. Often, the delegate does the task differently—and usually better—than you might, so if you delegate, you need to be flexible and open to change. Time for one’s personal life is also very important—being a mother, wife, grandmother, daughter, and sister is far more important to me than being a dean.

Q: What was the most interesting project you worked on during your time at the RAND Corporation?

A: The most interesting project I worked on at RAND involved the evaluation of the benefits and risks associated with ephedra, which is an herbal supplement usually used in the United States for weight loss or athletic performance—you can read about it in an article we published in Statistical Science in 2005. We conducted a systematic review of the evidence, including an analysis of serious adverse events such as heart attacks and deaths contained in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration MedWatch database. This project was statistically complex, but it also presented a challenge in terms of communication, given the implication that ephedra had caused the deaths of high-profile athletes. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson was quoted as saying, “I would not take this [ephedra]; I would not give it to my family. And I don’t know why anyone would take these products.” Suffice to say, there was considerable media attention on our analysis.

One lesson I learned was to anticipate the political and publicity spin a project might produce. Particularly in this time of Big Data, evidence-based policy requires big statistics. By big statistics, I mean statisticians need to be involved early in the process of design and data collection; communicate with other scientists, policymakers, and journalists; and acknowledge politics as part of the mix.

Sally Morton with 2014 ASA President Nat Schenker

Sally Morton with 2014 ASA President Nat Schenker

Q: You have served on multiple Institute of Medicine (IOM; now the National Academy of Medicine) committees. What types of issues have been addressed by these committees?

A: The topics of these committees have all concerned health policy, and I was fortunate to be asked to participate due to my experience in evidence synthesis, particularly the science of systematic reviews and meta-analysis. The first committee focused on how to identify highly effective clinical health care services and led into a second committee, which identified initial national priorities for comparative effectiveness research. Both committee reports informed the health care Obamacare reform debate. Subsequently, I was vice chair of a committee that established methodological standards for systematic reviews and then served as a member of a committee examining geographic variation in health care spending.

I am just beginning service on a committee considering the process for updating the national dietary guidelines, including how the guidelines advisory group is selected and how systematic reviews are conducted. I enjoy contributing in this way—I always learn a tremendous amount and feel I am able to have an impact as a statistician.

Sally Morton with 2010 ASA President Sastry Pantula

Sally Morton with 2010 ASA President Sastry Pantula

Q: What was the most unique challenge you faced during your term as president of the ASA?

A: Before turning to challenges, I wish to cite advantages! I was the first ASA president to have two major advantages—an updated strategic plan and Ron Wasserstein.

The ASA strategic plan had been revised to succinctly focus on key dimensions of the ASA such as Meetings and Visibility and Impact in Policy Making and provide a background, objective, and strategy for each dimension. I was able to organize my presidential initiatives around the plan, and the ASA Board activities were aligned with the plan, as well. I believe this plan is a major asset for the ASA, and I still use it to explain to fellow ASA members how the association is moving forward.

My second advantage was that Ron Wasserstein began his term as executive director of the ASA just as I was elected, and I feel very fortunate to have worked with—and learned from—him and the other excellent staff of the ASA. I am very fortunate to have worked alongside Ron, as well as numerous fellow presidents and members of the ASA.

I would identify two challenges I faced as ASA president. The first was helping the ASA move forward on accreditation. This issue had been fairly contentious in the past, and it was important to hear all views. In the end, the association relied on data. A survey of the members indicated this service would benefit a sector of our association. We strove to have an open and transparent process for assessing accreditation, and in the end, the ASA Board approved an accreditation program. The ASA is a heterogeneous and large group, and we need to value and bring services to members across the spectrum.

My second challenge was related philosophically to the first—the establishment of the Conference on Statistical Practice, or CSP, which serves primarily applied statisticians in industry. CSP has been tremendously successful and provides an excellent additional professional outlet to ASA members.

I am honored to have served as ASA president, and I am incredibly positive about our future as an association and discipline. Thank you.

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One Comment »

  • Philip Scinto said:

    Thank you Sally for all of your contributions to Statistics and the ASA. You have been a great leader and I definitely agree that we need to encourage statisticians to be leaders.

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