"I really think nobody has any choice but to embrace numbers": Susmita Datta looks back on her Presidency of CWIS


  • Author: Statistics Views
  • Date: 23 Oct 2014
  • Copyright: Photograph appears courtesy of Professor Datta

Susmita Datta is a tenured Full Professor and a Distinguished University Scholar in the Department of Bioinformatics and Biostatistics at University of Louisville. Last year, she was the President of the Caucus for Women in Statistics. She obtained a BS in Physics at University of Calcutta before studying statistics for an MS, then PhD at the University of Georgia.

Her research interests include bioinformatics, clustering and classification, genomics, proteomics, infectious disease modeling, non-linear regression modeling for systems biology, as well as birth defects and cancer research.

Susmita is also known for her renderings of semi-classical Hindi bhajans, ghazals and Bengali songs (ragpradhan and Nazrul-geeti). She is also popular for her repertoire of Bengali folk songs and has three CDs to her name.

Statistics Views talks to Professor Datta in depth about the Caucus for Women in Statistics, the first ever Women in Statistics conference and her own career in biostatistics.

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1. Please could you let us know how the Caucus for Women in Statistics came about?

The Caucus for Women in Statistics was officially formed in 1971, when it was recognized by the ASA and was permitted to organize a paper session for the annual meetings. Its goal was to eliminate discrimination against women in statistics in terms of education, employment, salary and career advancement and recognition.

2. When you look back now at your Presidency, what do you feel were your main achievements in the role?

I started the presidency at a very difficult time with the Caucus experiencing low membership, lack of morale amongst the members and additionally the hacking of our webpage. I was able to navigate through the tough times and managed to bring back some stability to the organization. We had a relatively large gathering at JSM 2013. The social hour included talks given by many women leaders discussing the status of women statisticians both here in the USA and abroad, such as in South Korea. I incorporated some diversity into the CWIS activities and members. I was also able to do the groundwork towards the first conference of Women in Statistics during my presidency, secure NIH funding to support that conference and also started working on a proposal along with the current president and the leadership of ASA and COWIS to have women keynote speakers at JSM. Overall, I think I have brought back some enthusiasm and revitalized the organization.

3. What were the highpoints of being President? Were there any low points?

I think this presidency enabled me to associate with many women leaders such as many ASA presidents, and it also gave me a platform through which my voice could be heard. It’s an honour to have been the first Asian president of Caucus for Women in Statistics. As I stated earlier, I started with a very tough situation and consequently felt very lonely initially. However, I found some pragmatic leaders who really gave me the strength to move forward. Frankly, I almost forgot all the negativities that I faced. I was able to help many junior women colleagues in many ways, and that is my mission in life.

4. Can you please tell us how the team works e.g. how many, what are the different roles involved, etc.?

We do have an executive committee with voting and non-voting members and one can see the composition through our webpage http://caucusforwomeninstatistics.wordpress.com/. We are in the process of revising the bylaws of Caucus and it will soon be voted on, so please stay tuned for a revised committee composition.

5. The First Conference of Women in Statistics has just taken place in Raleigh, NC, USA. How did this first conference go and what were the main successes? What can be done for improvements in future?

This conference was a huge success. There were more than 300 women participants from industry, government and academia. There were women from all stages of their careers. I was able to get the NIH funding which enabled us to provide travel funds for junior researchers. With the variety of events such as research posters, career talks, leadership panels and educational talks, it was fabulous.

We heard from many attendees that this was the best conference that they have ever attended and I strongly agree. We will be happy if we are able to maintain this standard for future ones.

6. What are the Caucus’s plans beyond 2014?

The Caucus received a lot of publicity during the Conference for Women in Statistics, and I am sure the conference will have a major impact on the membership of the Caucus. The Caucus will be working closely with COWIS to promote women keynote speakers during JSM and promote women to obtain prestigious professional awards and sponsor activities to improve the status of women in statistics.

7. How has the Caucus been measuring success so far? Are you able to measure your influence at all?

This is a hard question to answer. I think I was able to attract many junior women and women from diverse ethnicities to join the Caucus and consequently to join the conference as well.

I think this presidency enabled me to associate with many women leaders such as many ASA presidents, and it also gave me a platform through which my voice could be heard. It’s an honour to have been the first Asian president of Caucus for Women in Statistics.

8. What kind of feedback have you received so far?

I heard a lot of great feedback from junior and senior statisticians about the social hour that I organized during JSM 2013, and I got amazing feedback for this conference.

9. Do you think governments and learned societies can do more to raise awareness of statistics and stop people being afraid of numbers?

I really think nobody has any choice but to embrace numbers. It is going to be an era of Big Data and it is going to be a part of life for every organization. So statistics combined with computer science and mathematics will play a much bigger role than ever in the future.

10. What are the key challenges in engaging the public in statistics?

I often feel if we can communicate as well as we do our research, we will be able to engage the public in statistics. People can sometimes be intimidated by numbers, but as statistics becomes more and more relevant, it’s our job to make sure that we are not only able to communicate our ideas effectively throughout the statistics community, but throughout the general public as well.

11. How can we get young people interested in statistics?

The past ten to fifteen years have brought a lot of changes in terms of the electronic revolution. Educators faced, and still face, difficulty keeping up with the pace. However, we are making a serious effort and we will definitely succeed attracting young people. I think with the Big Data initiative in future it will be easier to convince young people to learn statistics, and utilizing technology as a means of education will be essential in the education of our future statisticians.

12. You studied physics at Calcutta University and then switched to do an MA and PhD both in Statistics at University of Georgia, Athens. What was it that encouraged you to make this switch? Was your physics degree the means by which you were introduced to statistics as a discipline?

I was introduced to probability in a class while I was a physics MS student at Michigan State University, and I loved it. I wanted to quit Physics for a very practical reason, as the physics graduates, especially the international students, were having a tough time getting appropriate jobs. I wanted to find an alternative career path, and that probability course helped to steer me into applied probability/statistics very easily. So when I had to change universities for family reasons, it was easy for me to switch fields. I am fortunate enough to be able to sustain my curiosity to such an extent that I really feel like I can work in any discipline. I can easily see the connection from one field to the other.

13. Your main interests are Bioinformatics, Proteomics, Infectious Disease Modelling, Inference, Statistical Genetics, Statistical issues in Population Biology, Survival Analysis and Multistate models. What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on various topics such as protein inference problems in mass spectrometry data, multiple imputation problems and network analysis involving genomics, proteomics and lipidomics data, as well as multistate problems and systems biological inference after integrating data from different molecular profiles.

14. Are there people or events that have been influential in your career?

I am greatly influenced by senior researchers. I recently heard a talk by a very senior women researcher and I felt extremely energized about my research. I am also used to thinking outside the box and I am deeply interested by talks given by researchers from outside my discipline such as biology or computer science.

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