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StatFest 2009 Meets in the Field of Dreams

1 April 2010 No Comment
Kathryn Chaloner, Kristin Gilchrist, and Philip Kutzko, University of Iowa, and Nagambal Shah, Spelman College

    Students Jamie Encarnacion (Kean University and Rutgers University, New Jersey, left) and Aysa Jones (Spelman College, Georgia), studying conference material carefully

    The ASA’s StatFest 2009 was held in conjunction with the third annual Field of Dreams Conference of the National Alliance for Doctoral Studies in the Mathematical Sciences (the Alliance) in Iowa City, Iowa, September 25–27. Eighty-eight students of diverse backgrounds from colleges and universities outside of Iowa came to the one-and-a-half day conference, which combined the StatFest mission with the closely related Alliance mission.

    StatFest is a conference (typically one day) aimed at encouraging students from underrepresented groups to consider careers in the statistical sciences. The Alliance is a community of faculty in mathematics, statistics, and educational testing and measurement who work together with a mission “to ensure that any underrepresented student who wishes to pursue a doctoral degree in the math sciences is given the tools, nurturing, and encouragement needed to ensure that he or she will be prepared for a PhD program.”

    Ivelisse Aviles demonstrates the use of a telescopic lens to see the blackboard in class.

    On the first day of the conference, the students were introduced to the idea of attending graduate school. Financial opportunities were described, such as support through fellowships and teaching or research assistantships. The second day of the conference was devoted to careers and followed a typical StatFest agenda, with panels on careers in each of academia, government, and industry.

    One of the main goals of the Alliance conference was to familiarize students with the opportunities and resources available to them in the mathematical sciences and to provide a support network of mentors to help guide and empower them to reach their goals. For many of the students, navigating through the system of selecting and applying to graduate school was uncharted territory, so the conference served to give them the tools and inspiration to move through this process with ease and confidence.

    The first day opened with a panel of successful PhD statisticians and mathematicians from underrepresented groups. Academic, social, and emotional issues were among the issues the panelists discussed, and the students discussed them in subsequent lively exchanges. A lunchtime presentation gave the history of educational measurement and testing in Iowa City (which is home to several educational testing corporations and the germinator of other testing programs). The afternoon was devoted to sessions on how to select a graduate program and what to expect when you are in a program. It was followed by a recruiting fair. Representatives from universities from around the United States, as well as from government agencies and industry, answered questions and talked to students individually, providing information and application forms for summer internships, summer research experiences, graduate school, and careers.

    The keynote speaker at the banquet Saturday evening was Ivelisse Aviles, then a statistician at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and now at the Government Accounting Office in Washington, DC. Her talk, titled “Can I compete?” kept the students in rapt attention as she described, with extraordinary humor and insight, some of the challenges she faced in achieving her dreams and overcoming obstacles. Aviles’s experience as a legally blind, Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican was compelling and resonated with those in attendance.

    Students spent the second day hearing about different careers in statistics, educational testing and measurement, and mathematics. For example, Brian Millen talked about the pharmaceutical industry, Shaowei Yang talked about careers as an actuary, and Bob Rodriguez talked about careers at SAS Institute Inc. The closing session on careers in testing and measurement generated a lively and informative discussion about racial and ethnic biases in standardized testing.

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