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ASA Leaders Reminisce: Ronald L. Wasserstein

1 August 2016 No Comment
James Cochran

    In the 20th installment of the Amstat News series of interviews with ASA presidents and executive directors, we feature a discussion with current ASA Executive Director Ronald L. Wasserstein.

    Ronald (Ron) L. Wasserstein assumed the ASA’s top staff leadership post in August 2007. In this role, he provides executive leadership and management for the association and is responsible for ensuring that the ASA fulfills its mission of promoting the practice and profession of statistics. He also is an official ASA spokesperson and responsible for a staff of 35 at the ASA’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

    Prior to joining the ASA, Wasserstein was a faculty member in the mathematics and statistics department and an administrator at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. During the last seven years of his 23-year tenure at Washburn, he served as the university’s vice president for academic affairs.

    Wasserstein has extensive experience applying statistics to real problems. He has served as a consultant to the Kansas Department of Revenue, Missouri Department of Revenue, and Illinois Department of Revenue. He also has served as an expert witness in several legal cases, and he was a member of the Governor’s Tax Equity Task Force in Kansas in 1995. In 2012, he testified as an outside witness in a House of Representatives hearing on the FY13 Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS), and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill.

    Wasserstein is a longtime member of the ASA, having joined the association in 1983, and has been active as an ASA volunteer for more than 20 years. He twice served as president of the Kansas-Western Missouri Chapter and served as chair of two ASA sections—the Statistical Education and Statistical Consulting sections. He also chaired the Council of Chapters Governing Board in 2006 and was a member of the ASA Board of Directors from 2001–2003.

    Wasserstein is a Fellow of the ASA and American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was presented the John Ritchie Alumni Award and Muriel Clarke Student Life Award from Washburn University and the Manning Distinguished Service Award from the North American Association of Summer Schools. He also was president of the Kappa Mu Epsilon National Mathematics Honor Society from 2009–2013 and served on the MATHCOUNTS Board of Directors from 2007–2014.

    Wasserstein and his wife, Sherry, live in northern Virginia and enjoy movies, live theater, books, and doting on their children and grandchildren.

    ASA Executive Director Ron Wasserstein attends the JSM 2014 Opening Mixer with Ingram Olkin and Sastry Pantula.

    ASA Executive Director Ron Wasserstein attends the JSM 2014 Opening Mixer with Ingram Olkin and Sastry Pantula.

    Q: You are the only person I know of who has served as chair of both the ASA Section on Statistical Education and the ASA Section on Statistical Consulting. What similarities do you see in the missions of these two sections?

    A: My earliest involvement with the ASA was with what was then called the Subsection on Statistical Consulting Education. Back then, sections had subsections, and this was a subsection of the Statistics Education Section. Just a few years later, a constitutional revision of the ASA was undertaken and subsections became sections. By then, I was deeply tied into both the Statistical Education Section and the Statistical Consulting Section. The area of commonality for me is that a fair amount of time in consulting is spent educating the consultee in statistics. Of course, at least an equal amount of time in consulting involves statisticians getting educated by their consultees about their scientific domain.

    Q: You have written several times on lotteries for the Huffington Post and have discussed lotteries in the media several times—including an interview during which Melissa Lee stated she thought you were likely the first statistician CNBC had interviewed on air. What motivated you to initiate this series of blog posts, and what has been the reaction to them?

    A: I started thinking, teaching, and writing about lotteries back in the late 1980s, when Powerball came to Kansas. I had bright students telling me they were buying lottery tickets and winning more than they were spending. I started to look for ways to help people understand what’s going on under the hood with lotteries, and I’ve been speaking on the topic ever since. I’m grateful to the Huffington Post for the opportunity to blog on their site about the lottery, as it has tremendous reach. I was motivated by all the talk about lotteries as Powerball reorganized itself to have larger jackpots by greatly reducing the probability of winning. As for the “Fast Money” interview, it was interesting and fun to work with that team to explain how buying more tickets indeed increased one’s chances of winning, but not by enough to matter.

    Q: What has surprised you most in your role as a member of the steering committee for The World of Statistics?

    A: The World of Statistics is a follow up to the International Year of Statistics, or Statistics2013. I was surprised and delighted in 2013 to see the worldwide enthusiastic response to promoting the field of statistics through Statistics2013. Thousands of organizations and individuals got involved. It was one of the most encouraging things I’ve ever been involved with in my professional life.

    Q: The American Statistical Association created the “This is Statistics” website and campaign to increase awareness of statistics careers among students, parents, educators, and counselors. How has this campaign been received?

    A: I am proud of the ASA for its commitment to promoting the profession of statistics to young people. Through the “This is Statistics” national outreach program, the ASA is making high-school and college students aware of careers in statistics and letting them know that even if they don’t want to be a statistician, understanding the basics of statistical thinking is important for navigating 21st century life. I’m proud of the ASA because it has made a substantial investment that does not directly benefit the association, but has great potential to impact the profession.

    Q: The ASA has been very active in trying to educate the public and the scientific community about the correct way to interpret and think about p-values. What effects do these efforts appear to be having?

    A: We are extremely pleased with the response to the p-values statement. The article in The American Statistician has been downloaded well over 120,000 times, and the subject is being discussed in forums across the country and, I presume, around the world. I’m excited that the ASA plans to further invest time and resources in some follow-up activities on this subject. Readers of Amstat News will be hearing more about this very soon, I hope.

    Q: You served for several years on the faculty at Washburn University. What course or courses did you most enjoy teaching and why?

    A: I loved teaching statistics at any level, but especially the intro level. I enjoyed being with students and seeing them grow, not just in my class, but as they progressed through the university. Even when I served in administration, I tried as often as possible to be teaching a course each semester. I do not miss grading, but I miss most everything else about teaching statistics.

    Members of the Wasserstein family (from left: Ron, Peterson, Abner, Rose, and Sherry) enjoy a day at the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC, during the 2016 blooming of the cherry trees.

    Members of the Wasserstein family (from left: Ron, Peterson, Abner, Rose, and Sherry) enjoy a day at the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC, during the 2016 blooming of the cherry trees.

    Q: Are you involved in any new statistics initiative that you find to be particularly exciting?

    A: One of the most exciting projects I’m currently involved with is the launching of the International Prize in Statistics. An award of international stature for our profession is long overdue and now, thanks to the cooperation of five major statistical societies—the ASA, International Biometric Society, International Statistical Institute, Institute of Mathematical Statistics, and Royal Statistical Society—we will be selecting and announcing the first award winner this October and presenting the award at the ISI World Statistics Congress next year.

    Q: You became executive director of the ASA in August 2007. What has been the most gratifying aspect of the nine years you have served as the ASA’s top executive?

    A: I am not exaggerating when I say that every day, in some way, I’m reminded of what a wonderful opportunity and privilege it is to be the executive director of this organization. I’m gratified by the incredible volunteer commitment of our members. We estimate that more than 2,000 members volunteer for the ASA in some capacity each year. We couldn’t successfully promote the practice and profession of statistics without them. I’m grateful for the leadership of ASA Board members, who work with great vision and diligence to advance the association—and do so collegially. ASA presidents have particularly been a pleasure to work with. These amazing leaders have been inspirational mentors to me, and I am thankful for each of them. I am a very fortunate person indeed!

    I’ve enjoyed two wonderful careers, first at Washburn University, and now here at ASA. My favorite career, though, remains being a husband, father, and grandfather. I’m blessed with wonderful children who make me laugh and think. I’m grateful for our two newest family members, two boys adopted from Haiti, for all the excitement and joy they bring to the entire Wasserstein tribe. And, of course, none of these careers would have been possible without the loyal love of my wife of 40 years. Her capacity to care about others astounds me. Our lives have been quite a ride, but no matter how rough the road, she’s always up for another trip.

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