Point of View

Triangle the hotbed of the sexiest job

April 19, 2013 

What do sports, hurricanes and elections have in common? They all use the power of statistics to help predict the seemingly unpredictable. From picking the most effective players in baseball to helping coastal residents prepare for storm seasons, statistics make a real difference in our daily lives. And the Triangle area is at the center of this statistical Renaissance.

With the advent of the Internet and large sources of data, there is a big demand for statisticians, leading Google chief economist Hal Varian to describe statisticians as having this decade’s “sexy job.” We are no longer the geeks on campus, but the ones that get the cool jobs at Amazon, on Wall Street and with the New York Yankees.

Recently the N&O ran a feature about Duke statistics graduate Drew Cannon and his work to improve the basketball program at Butler University. Similar to what the best-selling book “Moneyball” did for major league baseball, Cannon’s work demonstrates that the role of statistics in sports goes far beyond settling bar bets about which team has the best guards.

In last fall’s elections, New York Times writer and best-selling author Nate Silver accurately predicted not only President Obama’s margin of victory in each state but also congressional election results. How did he do that? His prediction method is based on averaging multiple pre-election surveys weighted according to their historical reliability. (Averaging, predicting and evaluating reliability are core statistical methods.)

In a recent Huffington Post piece, American Statistical Association President Marie Davidian (an N.C. State professor) noted that “Scientific breakthroughs, such as the existence of the Higgs Boson and discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe – awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics – used statistical models to establish that the findings were not simply artifacts of imprecise measurement.”

In my research, my academic colleagues and I provide an annual forecast of the hurricane season that is clearly important for residents of North Carolina and other Eastern Seaboard states. We also study air pollution and the direct effect it has on human health. Using statistics, we not only assess levels of pollution, but also develop air-quality models that lead to guidelines for protecting everyone’s health, especially our most vulnerable citizens.

The Triangle area is a literal hotbed of statisticians with leading departments of statistics and biostatistics at N.C. State, UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University; government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; and companies like SAS, GlaxoSmithKline and Quintiles. The Duke Clinical Research Institute is the world’s top center for heart research and depends heavily on statistical planning and analysis. GlaxoSmithKline is a top pharmaceutical company whose research also depends heavily on statisticians, many with doctorates from local universities. SAS is well known for revolutionizing the practice of statistics with intelligent computing; less well-known is that SAS was “incubated” at N.C. State before moving off campus in 1976.

This year is the International Year of Statistics. Take a moment to think about the myriad ways in which statistics affect your day-to-day life. Then go hug a statistician. Odds are, he or she will appreciate the gesture.

Dr. Montserrat Fuentes is the head of the Department of Statistics at N.C. State and a well-known researcher in spatial statistics with applications to environmental and climate data.

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