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Seeing Is Believing

1 June 2013 No Comment
This column is written for statisticians with master’s degrees and highlights areas of employment that will benefit statisticians at the master’s level. Comments and suggestions should be sent to Megan Murphy, Amstat News managing editor, at megan@amstat.org.

JeanadamsContributing Editor
Jean Adams is a statistician with the U.S. Geological Survey – Great Lakes Science Center and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, both headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She earned a master’s degree in statistics from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and gained many valuable life lessons from two years with the Peace Corps in Papua New Guinea.

Earlier, I gave my recipe for a long and happy career: Find your passion and connect with people. This month, I add a dash of painting and paying it forward.

Paint a Picture

“Draw a circle on the left and another on the right. Connect the two circles with a line. Now, starting at the left side of the left circle, move your pen to the left, then up, then to the right, then diagonally up and to the right, …” The class was utterly confused. A fellow student was trying to get us to draw the side view of a car without telling us what we were drawing. The class was in public speaking. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate, quite literally, how a picture is worth 1,000 words. The exercise and the point stuck with me.

As statisticians, we use plots and diagrams as pictures of the data with which we are working. Drawing graphs may be the first thing we do as part of the data exploration process. Plots can reveal important characteristics of the data or highlight potential data entry errors. Drawing graphs also may be the last thing we do to explore model adequacy and summarize results. If we successfully capture the story of the data in an intuitive graph, it raises the level of understanding of the issue to new heights.

It’s easy for us statisticians to think of ourselves as number crunchers, rather than picture painters, but we are, in fact, both. The brushes and paints in our statistical tool box are just as important and just as unique to our profession as our other analytical tools. Because of our familiarity with graphs and the software to create them, we may be able to visualize our clients’ data in ways they cannot. (See Nathan Yau’s blog, Flowing Data, for some inspirational visualizations.)

Make it a point to paint a picture of your clients’ data.

Pay It Forward

Have you ever had your work improved by the comments of a good reviewer? Have you ever benefited from the sage advice of a mentor? Have you ever gotten stuck trying a new analysis or software and turned to Internet forums to get unstuck? Of course you have. We all have. We are surrounded by people willing to help, including some we have never met. Don’t hesitate to ask for assistance. If you choose your target wisely and clearly state your question, you will be rewarded for your efforts. I find that just the process of framing the question for someone else brings some answers to light.

Have you ever been on the other side? Reviewed someone else’s work? Advised a protégé? Answered questions on an Internet forum? If not, give it a try. You may be surprised to discover that you get as much out of the interaction as the person you’re helping. It can be quite gratifying, and there’s always something to learn. As every teacher knows, the best way to really understand a subject is to try to explain it to someone else.

No matter how much experience you have, there’s always someone with more experience from whom you can learn, and there’s always someone with less experience who could benefit from your help.

Paint a picture and pay it forward … two spices to flavor your statistics life.

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