What's So Great About Being A Statistician | Stats + Stories Episode 98 / by Stats Stories

Dr. Carriquiry Headshot.JPG

Dr. Alicia Carriquiry is a Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a Professor of Statistics at Iowa State University. She serves as Director and lead investigator for the Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence. The NIST Center of Excellence’s mission is to increase the scientific rigor of forensic science through improved statistical applications. Dr. Carriquiry provides scientific oversight and research expertise to the center. She participates in the Organization of Scientific Area Committees subcommittee on Materials and Trace Evidence and serves as a technical advisor for the Association of Firearms and Tool Mark Examiners. Dr. Carriquiry was recently named to the National Academy of Medicine and elected as a fellow to the American Associations for the Advancement of Science.

+ Full Transcript

John Bailer: I’d like to welcome you to today’s Stats and Short Stories episode. Stats and Short Stories is a partnership between Miami University and the American Statistical Association. I’m John Bailer. I’m Chair of the Department of Statistics at Miami University, and I’m joined today by my colleague, Richard Campbell, a Professor in the Department of Media, Journalism, and Film. We are fortunate to be joined today by guest, Alicia Carriquiry, Professor of Statistics at Iowa State University. She’s also the Director of the Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Science CSAFE. She joins us today to talk about her journey from agriculture in animal science, to statistics in forensic science. Alicia, welcome.

Alicia Carriquiry: Thank you.

Bailer: So, Alicia, you’ve worked on a range of really cool projects, you know, including nutrition, bioinformatics, transportation safety, forensics. You know, I’d like to start with a simple question, how come you can’t stick with anything? [LAUGHTER] I’m curious about – what do you like best about collaborating with colleagues across a broad range of specialties?

Carriquiry: I love collaborating with colleagues, but you may address the first question first. [LAUGHTER] You know, this is true, if there’s anybody young out there listening, and you have no idea what to do with your life, welcome to the club. That’s not a problem, really.

Bailer: I’m a member of the same club Alicia.

Carriquiry: I started out as an engineer, as a matter of fact, so that was my undergraduate degree. From there, I moved on to animal breeding and genetics. From animal breeding and genetics, I moved on to statistics and then for good measure, I did a post-doc in agricultural economics because I was still not sure that I liked statistics. Finally, I returned to statistics and that was the love of my life. So, it took me a while, but the – I think the fact that I got into statistics, not from mathematics like many people do, I gave me this appreciation for applications and an interest in applications and it also – I think I also had the language, you see so, that the ability or the know how to communicate with people outside of the mathematical world, and so if you’re going to be collaborating – so that’s an important skill, I think, for anybody collaborating, you have to be able to communicate, and that – I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I think that has always been something that I did reasonably well.

Campbell: How did you – what did you do to become better at communicating, because a lot of scientists, I think a lot of people that are involved in data, that’s – they’re uncomfortable with that.

Carriquiry: Yes, well you – if you’re going to be collaborating with people outside of your discipline, you need to learn the other discipline. You’re not going to become an expert, but you have to be able to understand what the other person is talking to you about. This is easier said than done. When I started working with bioinformatics, for example, it was very, very difficult for me. The science is very, very difficult, and it moves at such a quick pace that by the time I understood something, something else was already what they were doing. And so, I’m not saying this is an easy thing to do but learning about the science that you’re trying to – of your colleagues, is number one most important first step.

Richard Campbell: Let me just flip that too, because I want to ask the, kind of, opposite question, because a lot of my students in journalism are – they fear statistics, they fear numbers, they fear math, what can we – is there anything we can do to, sort of, excite them about statistics and math and get them over that fear, because they have to write about it. Part of what John and I do together is to try to get people to think about how we tell stories better about numbers and statistics.

Carriquiry: Yeah, and we have to teach better statistics, I think, at the undergraduate level. So, I remember the University of Wisconsin had this sequence of courses that were called, for example, Physics for Poets, and Chemistry for Poets, and those were courses that were tied at a – they were not taught using formulas. They were not taught using mathematical notation, they were taught using concepts, and examples. And I think, I know, and my colleagues hopefully won’t be hearing this [LAUGHTER] but I don’t think we do a good job here at Iowa State in that regard. You will still teach Stat 101 using formulas and led Y, B, blah, blah, blah, and that is not a very exciting way, I think, to learn statistics for somebody like a journalism student should.

Bailer: Well, and I think, what is it that excites us about what we do as statisticians? It’s not the formulas, it’s not the procedures, it’s working on interesting problems and trying to gain insight into them.

Carriquiry: That’s exactly right. I mean, at least for most of us, some people are excited by the formulas.

Bailer: Well, fair enough, fair enough. I always fall back on, you know, the John Tukey quote that the best thing about being a statistician is you get to play in everyone else’s backyard?

Carriquiry: Oh, that’s absolutely true. That has always been what I have loved about what I do, you know, trying to look at some data and uncover things, make sense of data that other people have collected. It’s so fun, and be able to say, ah-ha, this is what’s going on, and then being able to tell others. This is what this data are talking about. This is what this data is saying. I think that is so fun, and it’s so rewarding.

Bailer: Oh that’s – I agree with you completely. It is – the joy of collaboration. You can hear that in your voice, Alicia.

Carriquiry: Oh, I love it, but you know, there’s joy and then there’s things you have to be a little wary about, right?

Bailer: Yep.

Carriquiry: So, as a statistician, oftentimes – oh, not oftentimes, this things are changing, but it used to be the case that people thought you were, sort of, like the hired help. And so, one needs to also let collaborators know that we are more than the hired help, and I always tell my younger colleagues, I say, collaborate until your heart is content, but put your foot down, be mindful of your own intellectual property. If you write code, if you do some interesting design, and so on and so forth, claim ownership to those things, because those are your intellectual contributions to this process and you – it’s yours, and it’s what you can use to demonstrate that you’re valuable. So, collaborate, enjoy it, but go in with your eyes fully open.

Bailer: Good advice and thank you for sharing that.

Campbell: Thank you, Alicia.

Bailer: Well, it’s been our pleasure to have Alicia Carriquiry join us on Stats and Short Stories.

Bailer: Stats and Stories is a partnership between Miami University’s department of Statistics and Media, Journalism, and Film, and the American Statistical Association. Stay tuned and keep following us on Twitter, Apple Podcast, or other sources of podcasts you might enjoy. If you’d like to share your thoughts on our program, send your email to StatsAndStories@MiamiOH.edu and be sure to listen for future episodes where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.