Not just a vacation in Italy

Statistics senior Joanna Wang reflects on being the first Rice student on exchange program at University of Florence.

Joanna Wang standing in front of a building in Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy – the city of Dante, the Uffizi and Michelangelo’s “David” – is also the city of scholarly rigor in the fields of statistical analysis and data science, at least in the experience of Joanna Wang.

A senior in statistics (STAT), Wang is the first Rice student to take advantage of a new exchange program with the University of Florence.

In 2021, Rice and the Italian university signed an agreement to establish international cooperation between the schools focusing on statistics and data science. The goal is to enhance research and teaching collaborations through an exchange of undergraduates, doctoral students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty between the departments of STAT and computer science at Rice and statistics, computer science and applications at the University of Florence.

“The classes were rigorous and sometimes challenging. This was not like being in Italy on vacation. You had to work hard,” said Wang.

Wang spent 12 weeks in Florence and took three classes: “Multivariate Analysis and Statistical Learning,” “Statistics for Spatial Data” and “Design and Analysis of Sample Surveys.” The classes met three times a week for 90 minutes and each carried four and a half credits.

“There were seven or eight students in each class. Most of them were Italian and I was the only American. All the grades were based on oral examinations. Language was not a problem,” Wang said.

Marina Vannucci, the Noah Harding Professor of STAT, was the driver of the cooperation agreement and serves as the program coordinator at Rice. The University of Florence is Vannucci’s alma mater, where she earned a laurea (the Italian equivalent of a bachelor’s degree) in mathematics and a Ph.D. in statistics, in 1992 and 1996, respectively.

“These visiting exchanges for faculty and students,” Vannucci said, “are intended to promote seminars, courses, conferences, lectures, joint research projects and discussions of common interest.”

In addition to her B.S. in STAT, Wang will earn a B.A in mathematical economic analysis, with a minor in financial computation and modeling. After graduation she will go to work as an analyst at the New York City office of Accenture, a company specializing in information technology services and consulting.

Gail Oudekerk, a junior in STAT at Rice, will head to Florence in the spring.