Keeping it in the family: How children have followed their famous parents into statistics

Features

  • Author: Vern Farewell and Joel Greenhouse
  • Date: 12 Sep 2013
  • Copyright: Image of Karl Pearson and his family (from left Egon Sharpe Pearson; Karl Pearson; Maria Pearson (née Sharpe); Sigrid Letitia Sharpe Pearson) copyright of National Portrait Gallery

When we were approached to write a short commentary related to children following a parent into work in statistics, we had the following three immediate thoughts. While we have some personal experience of this phenomenon with one of us the child and one the father of a statistician, we did not want to focus solely on our own personal experiences. Secondly, we did not want to investigate the pattern of children following parents into professions generally in order to consider comparative statements between statistics and other professions. Finally, any attempt to be comprehensive concerning “statistical families” was sure to fail and would probably offend someone.

In light of these initial reflections, what we can now share are some thoughts based on the responses to a small questionnaire sent to eleven children of professional statisticians comprising an entirely opportunistic sampling frame with a response rate of 63.6%. Our remarks are organised broadly under the five questions asked on the questionnaire.

thumbnail image: Keeping it in the family: How children have followed their famous parents into statistics

1. When and why did you take up a career in statistics?

Almost all respondents appeared to enter university with no particular leaning towards statistics. But, whether from mathematics, journalism, engineering or other fields, the study of statistics emerged as an attractive option. Our one outlier in this regard was an individual who took an introductory college course in statistics at age 13, as an evening class after high school! The reasons for entering statistics included a recognition that pure maths was not their desired option for a career, the wide applicability of statistics and unlikely success as a professional sportsman!

2. What role/influence did your parent(s) have on your decision?

The dominant response to this question was that statistical parents did not “push” their children towards statistics and were seen to be supportive of children pursuing what they felt matched their skills and interest. However, the option of some study of statistics does seem to have been presented by parents where appropriate. One child went a little further and conjectured that their parent did make some more direct effort to “whet their appetite” for statistics and one was in the relatively unique position of having their parent as one of their best teachers of statistics and therefore a big influence on their decision to take up a statistical career.

Another consistent theme in the responses was that parents were seen to very much enjoy their work and appreciated the opportunities and freedoms it offered. 

Another consistent theme in the responses was that parents were seen to very much enjoy their work and appreciated the opportunities and freedoms it offered. In addition, the children had opportunities to meet other statisticians in a variety of contexts and, we are glad to say, they seem to have made a favourable impression!

3. Have you done joint statistical work with your parent(s)?

There was a lot of variability in the answer to this question, from a simple “No” to “Yes, a lot.” However, statistical discussion between parents and children appears to take place with some regularity in the family pairs represented. General methods of working and statistical areas of interest did, not surprisingly, vary within some families. Fortunately there was no evidence of conflicts from this and one child even took the brave step of re-analysing the data from their parent’s PhD thesis. There was no indication in the response that the findings were different!

4. Have you attended a statistical conference/meeting with your parent(s) (as a statistician)?

This question generated variable answers as well. A couple of respondents have attended the North American Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM) from very young ages, perhaps as a component of family holidays. One of these presented at JSM 8 years before getting their PhD in statistics! In general, those who did attend wrote positively of the experience and opportunity, while one recognized that the generational difference could produce both an opportunity and a danger: the opportunity to meet highly-respected statisticians and the danger of not recognising them as such.

We must share one particular recollection shared by a respondent who attended a meeting at which their father was also present professionally and their non-statistician mother was also present. At a mixer, the child introduced their mother to another statistician whose response was “You brought your mother to a statistics conference?!?”

5. Do you have any interesting anecdotes, from any period of your life, that are linked to the fact that one of your parents is a statistician?

Our respondents had a lot of fun with this question! One recalled an over-zealous parent fitting a regression, complete with log-transforms, to data of “questionable value” from a school science project. They also noted that they had no idea of what a logarithm was even after an explanation, and no recollection of the parent’s mark on the project! Another remembers from their childhood an argument at dinner over the necessity of randomization, prompted by the opposing views of their statistical parent and the other parent who was an experimental psychologist.

One recalled an over-zealous parent fitting a regression, complete with log-transforms, to data of “questionable value” from a school science project. They also noted that they had no idea of what a logarithm was even after an explanation, and no recollection of the parent’s mark on the project! 

A couple of respondents remarked on the interesting experience of meeting professionally, in one case for an interview, statisticians who had known them as children many years previously.

Fame arose in a few comments. One respondent observed that they had had comments indicating their parent is famous but appended the additional comment, “in some circles, I suppose!” Another felt their parent could be more famous than they imagined since they were often asked if there was a family link when they introduced themselves, but preferred the explanation that statistics is a small world. And finally, one reported that their parent felt their parental responsibilities were complete when they were told that someone in statistics knew of their offspring but not of them.

One person often notes that they had to go to graduate school to find out what their parent did for a living. A number of others simply expressed appreciation of the fact that they could talk about what they do at work with their parent, sometimes even getting good advice.

Finally, one anecdote was indeed very interesting, although perhaps rather peripheral to the general topic of statistical families. We feel we must share this simply because of the fun we had reading it ourselves.

“When I was an undergraduate, my dad was teaching a statistics course to the mechanical engineers in my year. One night we talked and he mentioned that his class had been really noisy the day before and that he’d had to be quite stern with them to get them to be quiet. He was surprised that they weren’t listening more attentively because he was trying to prepare them for their upcoming midterm. The next day, I saw a friend of mine who was taking the class. This friend happened to be a particularly anxious sort of individual. I decided to have some fun and asked him, “What did you guys do in class yesterday? My dad was SO MAD. He was livid. I have never, ever seen him so angry. He stayed up all night working on your midterm!” My friend wasn’t entirely sure whether to believe me but he looked visibly worried. Anyway, a few years later, I met someone else who happened to have taken that same class. I laughed and told him about what I’d done to my friend. He looked startled and said, “I actually remember that midterm! I heard a rumour that it was going to be really hard and studied harder than I’ve ever studied before in my life!”

Conclusion:

Can anything be concluded from our exercise? Perhaps there is not much from a scientific perspective, as our survey results would never get past referees. But we came away feeling that many attractions of a statistical career can be conveyed to children, that children, who can be notoriously harsh critics of their parents’ friends and colleagues, found statisticians a pretty good bunch in general, and that there can be a very positive additional dimension to a parent-child relationship when they share statistical interests.

We are very glad to have (VF) and have had (JG) the experience of being in a “statistical family” and it is nice to know that others feel the same way.

Vern Farewell
MRC Biostatistics Unit
Institute of Public Health
Cambridge, UK

Joel Greenhouse
Department of Statistics
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, USA

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