“Houstonians drive really far to go to the library. They don’t use the one closest to them,” said Tiffany Tang ‘18. “I wanted to find out why.”
Tang, who majored in statistics, started her undergraduate research career on an interdisciplinary team put together by Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership. The team collaborated with the Houston Public Library system (HPL) to analyze user data. HPL wanted to learn more about how Houstonians used the system and hoped the results would drive policy decisions that would enable them to better serve their customers.
“We looked to see if any internal characteristics attracted Houstonians to a particular library,” Tang said. “Whether that is the number of computers, programs offered, or the space itself. Based on our work, we were able to say that space is the most important factor to Houstonians when choosing a library branch.”
The findings provided an impetus for the HPL executive board to allocate funds for things such as library improvements.
“It was fun to be able to work with sociology students and use statistics to make an impact on policy,” Tang said.
Tang enjoyed research so much that she continued it throughout her academic career. During her junior year, she worked with a child nutritionist to study how malnutrition affected muscle development. Later that same year, she began work in Genevera Allen’s lab, evolving statistical methods in collaboration with scientists in the Texas Medical Center.
“One of the first projects I worked on was correcting for experimental effects in data,” Tang said. “When scientists run experiments, they may not factor in things like temperature or other experimental conditions. Our goal was to develop a new method to remove those effects from data before applying other methods of analysis to it.”
Most recently, she worked on developing a new method for data integration.
“Say you want to analyze multiple data sets at one time. You can pull information from each of those data sets to gain a more holistic understanding of the data. With our method, we are finding common patterns across multiple data sets.”
Tang is currently wrapping up her work in the Allen lab. This fall, she will continue her research career at the University of California-Berkeley, where she will pursue a Ph.D. in statistics. She is most interested in statistical machine learning and hopes to work on projects with the biomedical applications.
She encourages students interested in statistics to seize the opportunities available to them, talk to faculty, and join the Rice Data Science club.
“Statistics is great,” she said. “It’s math, but you can apply it to many different fields - public policy, biology, neuroscience. That’s one of the major themes of statistics — lots of overlap. It’s been cool to see how one field can impact so many others. There are a lot of opportunities out there, especially with the medical center so close. Many scientists have data that need to be analyzed and would love for students to work on these projects with them.”
“Before coming to Rice, I didn’t know what research entailed,” she said. “Now, I am intrigued by what you can do with it. You get to take ownership of your work and choose problems you want to work on and tackle them any way you like. There’s lots of freedom.”