As chair of the Department of Biostatistics at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, Sudipto Banerjee ’00 Ph.D. studies complex social and environmental problems, from the spread of human disease to the production of biomass in forests.
But unlike traditional social or environmental scientists, he sees these problems through the eyes of a data expert, analyzing hundreds of thousands of variables and location-specific information to create new insights into the field of public health. He and his colleagues recently developed models that help epidemiologists understand what environmental factors trigger asthma, and help hospital administrators predict asthma-related hospitalizations.
Banerjee says statisticians were not technically equipped to work with this kind of big data until just a decade before he entered graduate school in UConn’s Department of Statistics.
“A laptop now can do things that only a massive computer could do in the 1970s and 1980s, and these computing advances really transformed statistics and how statistical modeling is done,” he says.
Advances in statistical computing have also enabled many other sectors like business, finance, and medicine to use big data to refine their business models, according to Professor and Head of the Department of Statistics Joseph Glaz.
“We are now able to analyze huge data sets in ways that we couldn’t before, and we have seen a greater engagement in interdisciplinary research over the last 15 years,” he says. “This has opened up new areas for us, like machine learning and statistical methods in genomics.”
As a result, more and more organizations are demanding talented graduates from institutions like UConn to mine new data resources. The Department of Statistics has responded by ramping up its program, offering new courses and degrees that prepare graduates to take advantage of these expanding opportunities.
“People are realizing that, where data is being collected, some kind of analysis must be done, and the workforce is looking for individuals trained to do this well,” says Professor of Statistics Nalini Ravishanker.
Finding Meaning in Big Data
Glaz says that statistics graduates traditionally went on to work in academic institutions, government agencies, and the pharmaceutical industry, but that is beginning to change.
“In the last 15 years, we see graduates going into insurance, finance, healthcare, marketing, and online technology companies,” he says. “We also see them enter academic fields that have become more quantitatively heavy, like psychology, sociology, communication, and environmental sciences.”
But despite statistics being one of the fastest-growing majors in the country, demand for statisticians has outpaced the number of students graduating with degrees in statistics, according to a report published in October by the American Statistical Association (ASA). The report projected that job growth for statisticians between 2012 and 2022 will reach 27 percent, while the average job growth for all other occupations will reach only 11 percent.
“Nursing majors go on to be nurses, but I liked that you can use statistics in health care, marketing—so many different industries,” says Ysanne Richards-Burke ’04 (CLAS). Richards-Burke is a senior research analyst at Health Net Federal Services, a managed care support contractor that provides health care to military men and women and their families.
Richards-Burke conducts population health analyses that examine everything from the rate of disease to the success of targeted health intervention campaigns. She says her statistics degree has given her a technical advantage, and helps her identify data trends that may have a positive impact on Health Net’s customers.
“I’ve always been a numbers person, but I didn’t want to be just a number cruncher. With statistics I can make meaning out of what I’m seeing,” she says.
Even in fields where quantitative modeling is common, like insurance and financial services, statisticians are finding new applications for their skills and a greater receptiveness to their work, says Stephen Sugrue ’01 (CLAS), ’05 MA, principal statistician for State Farm Insurance Company.
“It used to be that you would have to try to sing for your supper and prove that you and that analytics have value,” he says. “There is such an appetite for what we do now. Business units are reaching out to us with data and saying, ‘We want to leverage this into meaningful, actionable insight for our unit.’”
Unprecedented Growth in Statistics Education
Student demand for statistics education has mirrored the increased need for statisticians in the workforce. The October ASA report noted that the number of students nationwide earning bachelor’s degrees in statistics increased more than 300 percent since the 1990s, compared to the 72-percent growth of students earning bachelor’s degrees in all science and engineering fields.
Over the past decade, student enrollment in UConn’s statistics and dual math/statistics majors increased sixfold, and its graduate enrollment has tripled. Today the department is home to 114 undergraduate and 126 graduate students.
“We’ve seen an explosion of majors in the last six or seven years, and a significant increase in the number of students who say that they want to come to UConn as statistics majors right from high school,” says Ravishanker, who has served as undergraduate program director since 1997.
Ravishanker says that the department has responded to the growth in enrollment and new technological demands by enhancing its curriculum in statistical computing. It also offers new courses in applied fields like as genomic science and biostatistics, made possible by recent hiring of five new faculty in the last three years with expertise in these areas.
“We have introduced more courses that are relevant to real world data analytics, but we don’t want to make a cookbook kind of major,” she says. “Our goal has been to preserve the methodological content, because the ‘why’ behind the analysis is very important.”
And as applications for statistics evolve in the workforce, the department continues to advance its program offerings. This year it admitted its first crop of students into a new professional master’s program in biostatistics, which pairs courses in statistical methods with theory from the health and medical sciences.
Like so many of the program’s graduates and students, Banerjee credits UConn as the place that showed him how to leverage modern statistical computing and its applications into a fulfilling and meaningful career. He also recalls the many educators and mentors at the school left a lasting impression on him—particularly his advisor, renowned statistics scholar and professor emeritus Alan Gelfand.
“UConn taught me some of the most relevant things in my career, and it helped me survive as a researcher and make a living in this community,” says Banerjee. “It enriched me in ways for which I will always be grateful.”
By: Bri Diaz, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences