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UMD Student Awarded Inaugural ASA/AAAS Mass Media Fellowship

1 June 2017 69 views No Comment

Nick Thieme, a graduate student at the University of Maryland (UMD), has been awarded the ASA’s first AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship (MMF). He will spend 10 weeks this summer training as a science journalist with Slate in its DC and NYC offices.


In his PhD work, Thieme applies artificial intelligence to the analysis of epigenetic data in the computer science department. He earned a bachelor’s degree in statistics from Carnegie Mellon University and a master’s degree in applied math from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). His application was strongly supported by three UMD professors, including the instructor of Storytelling with Data Visualization and his writing fellow supervisor at the UMD Graduate School Writing Center.

Slate’s Susan Matthews expressed the magazine’s support for the program and excitement to have Thieme working with them this summer. “Often, scientists’ writing is contained to press releases and grant proposals. That’s a shame—scientists see the world through different parameters, and helping them share that outlook with the rest of the world is a great service to journalism and readers. Nick’s statistics background will help him see unique and interesting stories, and I’m delighted that he’ll get to share them with Slate readers this summer. The AAAS program is a great way of getting scientists to learn journalism.”

Thieme was interested in applying for the AAAS MMF in part to address the general public’s fear and amazement of artificial intelligence. As a scientist who understands and can explain the intricacies of modern artificial intelligence and machine learning methods, Thieme wants to accurately and dispassionately describe these tools to the public so they understand technology’s abilities and limits and can make informed, level-headed decisions in their own lives.

Thieme didn’t start at CMU majoring in statistics, but credits the CMU statistics department for sparking his interest in statistics, providing a solid foundation, and exposing him to scientists writing about science. “Putting aside all the practical knowledge of the design matrix, thin-plate splines, and dimensionality reduction techniques, CMU stats taught me two lessons I aim not to forget,” Thieme said. “First, a statistician is a professional Swiss Army Knife. Students in the department were approached by, and encouraged to talk to, hiring managers for TV companies, health organizations, dentists, software developers, and video game designers. Every company has data needs, and there is no reason to limit yourself to the traditional.

“Second,” Thieme continued, “statisticians can be writers, too. I was a late convert to the STEM fields and didn’t know much of what existed. It was the stats department at CMU that first showed me the possibility of scientists writing about science.”

For an example of Thieme’s data journalism, see his blog entry, “DC’s Modern Gentrification.”

The ASA jointed the AAAS MMF sponsorship programs to expand its efforts to promote more statistical capacity in reporting and to provide statisticians with more media experience. The ASA Committee for Excellence in Statistical Reporting evaluated the candidates for the ASA’s MMF.

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