Smith College Admission Academics Student Life About Smith news Offices
Five College Calendar
Smith eDigest
Submit an Idea
News Archive
News Publications
Planning an Event
Contact Us
News & Events
By Kristen Cole   Date: 9/23/09 Bookmark and Share

Statisticians: Behind-the-Scenes But Gaining Notice

Increasing demand for statisticians in academia and industry has resulted in growing enrollment in statistics courses at Smith and other liberal arts colleges.

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 encourages—even requires—the advice of a professional statistician to “help ensure that research results are on a solid foundation,” said Horton.

Nicholas Horton

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.

For recent 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 students.

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.

Given 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 Statisticians.”

DirectoryCalendarCampus MapVirtual TourContact UsSite A-Z