Home » A Statistician's Life, Celebrating Women in Statistics

Karen Kafadar

1 March 2019 1,640 views No Comment

Chair and Commonwealth Professor, Department of Statistics, University of Virginia

Educational Background:
BS, Math, and MS, Statistics, Stanford (awarded simultaneously)
PhD, Statistics, Princeton

About Karen
It is a pleasure to share my experiences as a statistician and in ASA. I credit my supportive parents and graduate advisers.

Like many of us, I liked math, and my parents supported my interests (many women in my era were not so encouraged). Near the end of my junior year, I realized I needed only one more quarter to graduate. Horrors! What was I going to do in my life—go out into the real world? I was having too much fun! Even though college back then did not cost what it does today, it didn’t seem right to burn through mom and dad’s money just so I could hang out with my buddies. So, I came up with a scheme: Get a master’s degree! I knew mom and dad would go for it. They bought it. So, on the basis of one probability course, I signed up for a master’s degree in statistics.

It was my great fortune that the adviser for the MS program that year was one Professor Bradley Efron. When I showed him my wimpy study plan (it was my senior year after all), he promptly crossed out all my wimpy courses and put me in PhD courses instead. Then, he smiled cheerfully, signed my study plan, and sent me on my way. So much for hanging out with my buddies; I was in the library every day—and night.

But that 10-minute meeting changed my life. He encouraged me to continue to a PhD, during which I watched brilliant people like John Tukey and Peter Bloomfield work on real problems that demonstrated the importance of statistics. I joined the ASA and was lucky enough to take my first job in the prestigious statistical engineering division at National Bureau of Standards (now NIST), where my colleagues used statistics to design experiments to measure “Big G” (Jim Filliben), calibrate standard reference materials (Keith Eberhardt), and develop a “fair” draft lottery (Joan Rosenblatt and Jim Filliben). And more good fortune: When I was at Hewlett Packard (HP) in California, Tukey retired from Princeton but not from work; he was still very much in demand as a consultant, which brought him frequently to Palo Alto. Our dinners together during his visits exposed me to even more interesting problems and the clever ways he approached them. And, with my HP manager’s approval, I took advantage of Stanford seminars and a terrific course in numerical analysis for statisticians taught be visiting professor Ronald Thisted.

Statistics is a continually expanding playground, with unexpected opportunities just around the corner. I take pride in my editorial work, my service to the ASA, and my work in applications such as forensic science and randomized cancer screening trials. Whether others in those areas have appreciated my contributions is another question! My career is living proof of the influence you can have on someone in whom you see more potential than perhaps she dares to believe for herself. I hope all of you can have the impact on future statisticians in the way that my parents and professors Efron and Tukey had on me.

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