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My ASA Story: Ron Wasserstein, ASA Executive Director

1 June 2023 1,029 views No Comment
A white, bald man wearing frameless glasses blows bubbles, which surround him. He is wearing a grey-and-black striped tie and a black shirt against a blue sky.

Ron Wasserstein

My ASA story is a people story.

My story began with mentors. I have had dozens, and—at my ripe old age—I am still learning from them. Richard Shermoen, head of the Washburn University Math Department, welcomed me to the university—my undergraduate institution, and, later, my employer for 23 years. The math faculty inspired me. As an undergraduate, Al Riveland invested in me and, along with Gary Schmidt and Larry Blumberg, helped me visualize graduate school as a direction for my life. These people, along with other math department faculty, became my colleagues and friends, giving me encouragement and freedom to grow as a professional and a person.

My dear friend Ann Ukena supported me in countless ways. When I grow up, I want to be like her. Faculty in English, physics, economics, and other departments supported me and broadened my understanding of the world.

I suspect most readers of this column can name people who shaped their professional lives, and, like me, fear that starting a list inevitably means omitting wonderful colleagues. I take this risk because I know those colleagues know I value them.

As an undergraduate in the mid-1970s, I had taken a few courses in statistics. There were few undergraduate programs in statistics, and I had no idea statistics was a field of study. But my mentors encouraged me to visit—and sometimes accompanied me on visits to—various graduate programs.

At Kansas State University, I met Arlin Feyerherm, one of the founders of the K-State Department of Statistics. I listened to him tell a story about how researchers used statistics to increase the hardiness and yield of hard red and other varieties of winter wheat. I cared little about wheat and remember little of what he said about it. What stuck—what I still recall—is the passion he had for explaining the impact of statistics on helping to feed the world. That day I knew I wanted to be a statistician.

Later, I would have the opportunity to work with Jim Hess, Dallas Johnson, and George Milliken, who, among others on the faculty, managed to teach me statistical thinking and theory.

My ASA story began when I started work on my dissertation with John Boyer. Poor John. By the time I was working in earnest on my research, I had two small children and needed to earn more than a graduate stipend to get by. I often taught extra sections as a K-State graduate teaching assistant and, later, an instructor at Washburn just to snag extra cash, all the while trying to do research and write.

John did not give up on me. He still has not. It was John who guided the beginning of my ASA story, and—more than 40 years later—we remain close friends. He was my favorite person to hang out with at JSM.

John shared his belief that society membership was a professional responsibility, so I joined the ASA. Then, in 1985, he urged me to go to JSM. I did—and I have been to every JSM since.

The next year, as I was finally closing in on the completion of my degree, John said I should start getting involved in the ASA. I had no idea how. He said to look at the JSM program, find an ASA section mixer, and go meet people. That was great advice then and remains true today.

I met people in statistical consulting and statistics education, and my work as an ASA volunteer began.

Over the next 20 years, during a wonderful career at Washburn University, I became deeply involved in the ASA, serving as president of the Kansas-Western Missouri Chapter, a member of committees, a section officer, chair of the Council of Chapters Governing Board, and a member of the ASA Board of Directors. I expected to work the rest of my career at Washburn and volunteer for the ASA throughout.

In 2007, my ASA story took a surprising and life-changing turn when my predecessor as ASA executive director, Bill Smith, announced his plan to retire. John and former ASA President Bob Mason encouraged me to apply for his job. My wife and I thought hard about this, as a move away from a fantastic job and our family had not been contemplated.

Remarkably, the ASA hired me. Three great mentors—Sallie Keller (who overlapped with me at Kansas State), Mary Ellen Bock, and Bob Rodriguez—welcomed me into this new role in the ASA world. I still look up to those amazing people.

Sixteen years later, my ASA story continues. What a privilege it is to partner with the ASA staff, members of the board of directors, and especially our members—thousands of whom volunteer for chapters, sections and interest groups, outreach groups, committees, publications, and more for the benefit of the association and the profession. Many have become friends. The ASA presidents inspire me and, through example, teach me about leadership.

A special shout-out goes to Donna LaLonde, associate executive director, who has been my collaborator and friend for more than 30 years. We worked together in higher education and now enjoy promoting the practice and profession of statistics.

Yes, my ASA story is a people story. Thank you all for writing it.

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