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Susan Paddock

1 March 2024 292 views No Comment

Affiliation: NORC at the University of Chicago

Educational Background: BA, Math/Biostatistics, University of Minnesota; PhD and MS, Statistics, Duke University

Susan Paddock grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her first career aspiration (at age 5) was to become an astronomer. However, she became more interested in what was happening on Earth over time. Her high-school courses included civics, communications, and Spanish.

When Paddock started as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, she thought about pursuing a career focused on society but didn’t know what that would look like. In addition, she wasn’t ready to give up on science, so she focused on fulfilling her general education requirements and hoped a clear direction would emerge.

Fortunately, two courses provided a positive direction: an honors seminar about the health care reform debate of the time (early 1990s) and women’s health. In these courses, Paddock was introduced to peer-reviewed epidemiological and clinical literature—and to their study designs—and cost-benefit analysis. When she followed up with professors of public health, the director of undergraduate studies for biostatistics made a persuasive case for majoring in math and biostatistics. She was soon taking those courses, plus others such as computer science and chemistry. From that, she developed a broad interest in statistics, including Bayesian methods. She’d been in Minnesota all her life, so it seemed like a good idea to apply to graduate schools elsewhere. She landed at Duke University, where she earned her PhD.

After Duke, Paddock joined the RAND Corporation (1999–2019). She developed and applied statistical methods to mainly health policy research projects. One of her first projects was to design a Medicare payment system for inpatient rehabilitation facilities. She found it exciting to work on projects that directly affected the design and implementation of a federal program or were part of congressional deliberations.

Since 2019, Paddock has been in a leadership role at NORC at the University of Chicago, where her focus is ensuring NORC’s environment allows others to succeed. Her division includes 120 statisticians, survey methodologists, and data scientists who work cross-functionally on project teams focused on health, education, economics, global development, public affairs, and the federal statistical system.

Paddock considers herself fortunate to have found a career that has allowed her to provide to many the data and statistical analyses required to address issues of national importance. The work is mission-driven, which fosters collegiality among team members focused on achieving a common goal.

Paddock’s most unexpected accomplishment relates to testing the safety of self-driving cars. In 2016, Nidhi Kalra of RAND asked her whether there was a way to determine just how many miles these cars should be driven to test their safety. Paddock worked with Kalra on straightforward power calculations, and they showed the self-driving road tests at the time were vastly insufficient to confirm safety when considering outcomes of importance to the public. It led to media interviews and attention from a US Senate committee. The paper on that topic is Paddock’s most frequently cited. Paddock is proud she and Kalra demonstrated the power of statistical thinking in an accessible and straightforward way.

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