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Using Statistics to Find Real-Life Solutions

1 June 2012 No Comment

ASA member Jing Shyr uses statistics to help cities solve issues

Jessie Biele

    When it comes to statistics, ASA member and IBM Chief Statistician Jing Shyr thinks of the bigger picture. “So the key is I continue to think about how statistics can be part of the bigger solution,” Shyr said. “How statistics can really solve the real problems in our society.”

    This past fall, Shyr spent three weeks in Syracuse, New York, taking part in IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge. The Smarter Cities Challenge is IBM’s largest single philanthropic program. Each participating city receives a donation consisting of the time and expertise of seasoned IBM employees who work closely with the city government to offer recommendations for a particular issue. Shyr joined four of her colleagues to work with Mayor Stephanie Miner, evaluate data about the city’s growing property vacancy problem, and propose solutions.

    Shyr was inspired to participate in the Smarter Cities Challenge because of IBM’s focus on real-life solutions and innovation. “I started to really think about getting more experience, how to become part of the solution,” Shyr explained. “That is the reason why I took the opportunity to work on the Smarter Cities initiative.”

    Shyr earned her PhD in statistics from Purdue University in 1984 after emigrating from Taiwan on a student visa. After graduating, she took a position teaching introductory statistics, probability theory, and statistics methods in the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. While teaching at Vanderbilt, Shyr faced the challenge of teaching her students to enjoy statistics and understand how statistics applies to real-life situations.

    “That was a time where I faced a really big challenge,” Shyr reflected. “MBA students have a lot of questions about why they want to learn statistics. They asked, ‘What can statistics do for me?’”

    She continued, “I wasn’t offended, and I didn’t have the industry experience to come up with really good examples to inspire them. And so I felt bad and I said to myself, ‘You know, after so many years in education, maybe I should have gone to see how statistics can help to address real problems, instead of teaching somebody just the theory.’”

    After two years of teaching at Vanderbilt, Shyr was recruited for a statistician job at SPSS. There, she designed algorithms for statistics software. She was eager to learn more about the company and worked closely with customers to understand their needs and how SPSS helped fulfill them. She worked as a statistical consultant for stock option traders to design statistical analyses for stock options and she was a consultant for an engineering project evaluating the survival rate of water pipes in Houston, Texas.

    “In the beginning, I was really learning how to bring statistics computation into software development,” said Shyr. “So I learned so much in the beginning about software development. As I grew, I became more experienced and I started to have more and more opportunities to talk to customers, and that kind of experience inspired me to continue to contribute an idea of how to make statistics more fun in software development. It’s very good when you start something and then it becomes a bigger thing, so you try to do a better job to really make sure that the statistics you’re supposed to implement have a real meaning for the people who are using them.”

    As she learned more about the company, she moved up within SPSS and eventually became a chief statistician, senior vice president of research and development, and the general manager of SPSS China Xian Software, Inc. One of her greatest accomplishments while general manager of SPSS China Xian Software, Inc., Shyr used both her strategic and technical management skills to coordinate the setup of a lab in China and helped staff its employees. As of 2009, 200 employees worked at the lab, and Shyr helped organize members of the U.S. team to help provide the offshore team with guidance. “We were able to grow our technical staff in the United States to become leaders,” she said. “They have the experience to help mentor the junior staff in China.”

    In 2009, IBM acquired SPSS and Shyr’s role changed to chief engineer at the company’s business analytics division. She also earned the title of distinguished engineer, a rare honor. “IBM has more than 400,000 employees; there are only about 572 distinguished engineers in the company,” she explained. “Only about 13% of 572 distinguished engineers are female. It is very rare.”

    Shyr has had a long and fulfilling path to success, but she didn’t expect her journey to take her to her current role. She has won many honors, including the Distinguished Alumni Award from Purdue University’s College of Science in 2000. In 2005, she won a distinguished alumna award from National Chiao-Tung University of Taiwan, her undergraduate alma mater. She has served on the advisory council of the college of science at Purdue for six years.

    “I didn’t think 25 years would pass just like that,” she said. “I love math. I don’t think that the world understands math, so my challenge was ‘Could I take the math, the statistics I love the most, and can it be used in a very common language to allow people to leverage its usage and enjoy it themselves, or use it to answer questions they have in mind?’”

    Shyr credits her experience working in industry for helping her gain a better understanding of statistics. “I was not satisfied at the level I was teaching. I was teaching the way that I knew statistics, and I didn’t think that when I was a student, I didn’t think that the knowledge that I learned would apply to society,” she said. “When I was teaching the same thing to them, I didn’t think I would improve this generation of education, so I decided I was going to look for a different path. I had no idea what path I was looking for, but I wanted to go work for industry so I could get real experience so I could teach better.”

    She advises statisticians to think of ways to apply their knowledge to find solutions to real-life problems. She uses her experience in Smarter Cities as an example.

    “The one thing I think statisticians should do is really take their knowledge and thinking about the real-world data and thinking about how to apply our knowledge to help solve this data and to discover this important information and help the world become better,” she explained.

    “That’s what inspires me the most. In the end, when I saw the results and I was sitting there and I was thinking, ‘If I were the mayor of Syracuse, how do I take all this information and send it into action?’ And that moment makes me feel very proud. Not because I’m proud of my ability, but I’m proud that statistics is really useful.”

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