The idea that statistics is purely math is just one misconception Genevera Allen, associate professor of statistics at Rice University, is used to dispelling. Another hits closer to home — that statistics isn’t a creative pursuit.
Allen’s own passion for creativity is what brought her to Rice in the first place. “We don’t stare at numbers in an Excel spreadsheet all day,” she said. “Statistics is really about problem-solving. There is so much data out there — you have to think creatively and work collaboratively with other people to solve problems based on this data. It requires a lot of critical thinking skills, problem-solving and communication and a lot less about dealing with numbers.”
Allen didn’t initially plan on pursuing a career in statistics or academia, instead she dreamt of being a musician. “I came to Rice as an undergrad to study music and viola performance, but a shoulder surgery during my freshman year led me to completely switch up my major, and on a whim, I thought it would be fun to take a statistics class,” she said. “I took the statistics class and said, ‘Oh my goodness, I love this. This is exactly how I think.’”
Statistics is the mathematics of quantifying how we make decisions based on past evidence. “It really resonated with me and I became a statistics major, got my Ph.D. and went into academia, ending up back at Rice as a faculty member.”
Right across the street from Rice is the Texas Medical Center, which employs nearly 100,000 people. “It’s basically a city unto itself and for a statistician like me, the medical center is great fun,” she said.
Allen holds a joint appointment with Rice University and the Baylor College of Medicine with the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute, which has exposed her to a new world of statistical research. Working adjacent to a spectrum of scientists has helped her understand the needs of medical researchers and given her a great appreciation for all of the challenges in science, specifically those posed by emerging technologies.
There is an incredible amount of data being produced in the medical field that has the potential to advance patient health, discover cures for new diseases and detect basic biological systems. “They’re collecting tons of data and they need help from people like me — statisticians and data scientists — to make advances in medicine.”
Genetics and Neuroscience
Allen’s applied research interests largely lie in neuroscience and genetics. “Neuroscience is a really exciting field these days — it’s a new frontier,” she said. “We have 30 billion neurons in our brain and we don’t really understand what they do to process the stimuli from the world around us. There’s so much we don’t know about how the brain works.” Allen employs the mathematics and statistics of graphical model theory and machine learning to understand cognitive processes.
Her interest in genetics specifically is focused on integrated genomics. “This is a new hot topic where the type of genetic data we have access to is not just our individual pairs of DNA sequences, but actually a plethora of information about the whole molecular process in our cells.” And within genomics is a range of emerging fields of study.
There is whole genome sequencing, which is the exact individual DNA-based pairs; functional genetics, which is the measure of which genes are turned off and on; and epigenetics, which encode things from our lifestyle and environment. “There is all of this information — multiple snapshots of what is going on with the genome of a given patient,” Allen said. “We have analyzed all of this data separately to try to find potential therapies and cures for diseases, but really, the new frontier is how do we put the data together to understand what is going on in our genome?” Integrated genomics attempts to answer that question in part by targeting certain genetic data to develop therapies for diseases and even personalize therapies based on a patient’s specific genome.
Advice for Students
Allen’s advice for students interested in pursuing a career in statistics is simple: find good data and seek out practical applications. “Get your hands on data and get really into it,” she said. “The key to statistics is to take the math and translate it into something useful for particular data sets. Every data set is like a unique snowflake, and you have to study each one and have experience working with data, before you can understand the power of statistics and how it can drive data.”
The Future of Statistics
According to Allen, statistics is a very different field than it was 10 or 20 years ago, and it’s only getting more interesting. “It’s a really exciting time to be a statistician because we are in an age where data is growing at an exponential rate, and with it, the complexities of analyzing that data,” she said. “People don’t realize that there are tons of medical technologies that have been developed just in the past five years. These are breakthrough technologies that are producing billions and billions of data points, which create brand new opportunities for someone like me, a statistician.”
Emerging technologies challenge statisticians to conduct research and develop new statistical techniques to analyze this new data. “Statisticians and data scientists are poised to make a huge impact in society,” she said. “They are creating tools to analyze massive amounts of complex data and hold the key to making critical discoveries in areas such as medicine, personalized health recommendations, climate change and renewable energy.”