Behind-the-Scenes But Gaining Notice
NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—During a
December trip to Washington, D.C., Smith College statistician
Nicholas Horton received an urgent e-mail from a colleague
asking for some last-minute analysis on a research paper
slated for publication.
“She had already gotten the review comments back from the journal and the editors
were hot and heavy to get the finalized paper,” recalled Horton recently. He
put off sightseeing and visiting with family and flipped open his laptop the
minute he arrived, resuming his trip only after providing the requested information.
Statisticians play a critical
role, broadly applying their knowledge to design studies,
data collection, and analyses and interpretation of data.
The demand for their unique expertise has grown in recent
years, in both academia and industry, according to those
in the field.
In academia, the surge has been
driven by an increase in both the complexity of statistical
methods and the volume of research conducted by faculty,
according to a report, “Statistical
Consulting at Liberal Arts Colleges,” by
Horton, associate professor of mathematics and statistics
at Smith, and colleagues Johanna Hardin at Pomona,
and Albyn Jones at Reed.
Often, a grant or a journal
requires—the advice of a professional statistician
to “help ensure that research results are on a solid foundation,” said
Horton’s curriculum vitae reflects that demand. Along
the biostatistics research papers that he has authored, “Horton
NJ” has been listed as co-author on about
100 studies throughout the past decade. While 10 publications
a year would be an unusually high number for a lead researcher,
it is not unusual for statisticians to assist on as many.
“Nick comes in at a critical point – to help interpret the data,” said Smith
Associate Professor of Engineering Susan Voss, who has sought
out Horton’s expertise
on her studies about the auditory system.
In addition to
Voss, during the past year Horton has also collaborated with
Byron Zamboanga in psychology, on alcohol use among children
and teens. And, he has consulted with Andrew Zimbalist in
economics, on baseball players’ salaries; Howard Gold
in government, on voting behavior; and Katherine Queeney in chemistry, on studies
of ways to improve chemistry education.
Smith's other statistician,
Professor of Mathematics and Statistics Katherine Halvorsen,
works with investigators in a number of other disciplines,
including biodiversity and industrial design.
Smith graduate Kristin Tyler, those types of interdisciplinary
connections are what attracted her to statistics.
“I am both an expert and a perpetual student in all of the work that I do,” said
Tyler, a member of the Class of 2009. “The other reason that
I like statistics is because I have a difficult time, as
many do, deciding what it is that I want to do with my life.
Statistics…in no way forces me into any particular direction.”
The hot market for statisticians
was recently spotlighted in the news. An Aug. 6 New
York Times article, “For Today’s
Graduate, Just One Word: Statistics,” noted
that companies like Google and I.B.M. have begun to heavily
recruit statisticians as computing and the Web have created
reams of data to interpret.
Also in August, the magazine
Smart Money listed statistics among the “5 College Majors
That Can Help You Get a Job.” The article quoted Perry Wong
at the Milken Institute, an independent economic think tank,
saying that statistics majors tend to be highly sought-after
graduates and are often hired into lucrative positions straight
out of college.
“Huge, complex data sets are here to stay, and many of the practitioners who
collect the data are lost when it comes to analyzing the
data,” said Hardin,
who has supervised senior thesis research on such topics
as stock ranking and portfolio selection, and evaluations of health care claims
data. “This trend
is not going away.”
Students are responding. Throughout
the past few years, Smith’s
introductory statistics course has grown from about 250 to
350 students, noted Horton, who recently received the American
Statistical Association award for excellence and innovation
in teaching statistics at the undergraduate level.
“I like that statistics is used in any area of research and can be applied
to many different fields of work,” said senior Portia Parker, one of Halvorsen's
That is a lesson that alumna
Tyler, who graduated during the recession four months ago,
saw play out in her own life.
“Finding a job wasn’t easy, but it definitely wasn’t a major struggle. I was
even lucky enough to have options,” said Tyler, who is working
as a quantitative research assistant at Berkeley Policy Associates
in Oakland, Calif. “Statistics
are used everywhere we look. Consequently, there is a great
need for people with a strong statistical background.”
For that reason, Tyler said
she “absolutely” recommends that
every student take at least one statistics course before
graduation. But even those who are not taking statistics
courses may find their way to Horton’s and Halvorsen’s offices
in Burton Hall by way of their research projects.
“Students often seek out liberal arts colleges for the opportunity to undertake
mentored research experiences with faculty members,” said
Horton. “Working with
young authors is one of the wonderful parts of my work and
a key way for them to become established.”
Requests for Horton’s input are not limited to the Smith
community or even the United States. The Harvard-educated
faculty member is currently collaborating with researchers
in Russia, Sweden, New Zealand, England and Australia.
the increasing demand and integral role for statisticians
on interdisciplinary projects, Horton and his colleagues
at liberal arts institutions may need to rename their informal
professional organization. It is currently called “Isolated