Jun 13, 2011

Terence’s Stuff: Interdisciplinary Statistics

We all pride ourselves that Probability and Statistics (note the capitals) are important for many areas of academic research. Sufficiently important that we find courses in probability and/or statistics taught in departments of Biostatistics, Computer Science, Economics, Education, Engineering, Mathematics, Political Science, Psychology, Sociology, Statistics, and many other areas. Graduate programs with a substantial statistical component can be found in specialized centers, institutes or units devoted to fields such as Bioinformatics, Computational Biology, Demography or Survey Research. We all have experience of this diversity, and each of us lives it out in our own way. Faculty may have joint appointments, teach cross-listed courses, and be on the thesis committees of students from other branches of our discipline. Grad students typically take courses and perhaps act as teaching or research assistants in units other than their home department, and often have other statisticians as “outside members” on their thesis committees. This sounds like a lot of intermingling, but is it? And can — or should — there be more?
Here’s a question for you. At your institution, how often do faculty and students from the different branches of our subjects get together in groups of more than two or three? I don’t think my experience is atypical, and my answer is rarely. Perhaps at meetings of the local statistical society, or at social functions such as celebrations or memorials. Joint seminars can bring two or three branches together for a period, and the occasional talk can attract a broad audience from across the campus, but this is rare. What else could be done? My short answer is: a lot, and here’s one way.
I recently had the privilege and pleasure of participating in the Fifth Michigan Student Symposium for Interdisciplinary Statistical Sciences (MSSISS), a day of talks, posters, and good food, capped by a trip to a pub where we could savor local beers (b). I went away thinking that every campus should have an annual event like it. Organized entirely by graduate students from Statistics, Biostatistics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Program in Survey Methodology from the Institute for Social Research, and held in the University of Michigan’s art deco gem known as the Rackham Building (see photo below) housing the School of Graduate Studies, students and faculty from all these four branches of our discipline and from neighbouring institutions were treated to a superb day celebrating our diversity.
The organization of the 2011 MSSISS was near-perfect. There were not too many talks, all but one presented by students from the four branches above. The talks (t) were interleaved with poster sessions (p) and lunch (l) as follows: ttpttpltttpttb. The atmosphere at the three poster sessions was terrific, confirming my belief that this is a really excellent mode of professional communication. Every session was well attended, with groups of people around all the posters engaged in animated questioning, answering, listening and looking. It was hard to get your head in, and once in, out. We had to be encouraged (dragged) to the lecture theatre at the end of every session. Which is not to say that the talks weren’t excellent too: they were, but the degree of audience engagement is necessarily much lower. The paucity of questions after each said to me that students greatly prefer to put their questions face-to-face to a poster presenter, rather than to a speaker at a podium at the end of a talk. The food was exceptionally good, which is a great way to draw in students (and others), and as already mentioned, the physical surroundings were a delight.
I had one minor quibble, and that was the possible suggestion that a symposium consisting of students and faculty from four branches of our subject constituted an interdisciplinary activity. I do not consider the different branches represented at the MSSISS different disciplines, but rather parts of the same discipline. But maybe I am missing the point, and perhaps the real meaning of the term interdisciplinary in this symposium was intended to reside in the wide range of disciplines discussed by the speakers and the poster presenters. If so, then they succeeded admirably. There were posters and a talk about cancer research, a talk on the analysis of fault diagnosis data from noisy networks, of Raman spectroscopic image data, of neuronal spike-train data, of periodontal data, of dynamic social networks, returns to education, and social survey data. In fact, looking at the different departments and units in my introduction, I found that there was at least one talk or poster, frequently several, on material from every one. Interdisciplinary indeed.

Mural in Rackham Graduate School, University of Michigan

A mural in Michigan’s art deco Rackham Graduate School Building,
where Terry was impressed by the MSSISS meeting. Photo: Susan Murphy

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