Statistics Dept. Ups Enrollment, Faculty

The Statistics Department may make its career out of interpreting numbers, but now it finds itself topping the data.

Since launching three senior faculty searches in 2000, the department is poised to double its full-time faculty, welcome yet another record number of graduate students, and boost its undergraduate numbers.

Most recently, the department garnered third-place in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of mathematics specialties as part of its “America’s Best Graduate Schools” issue, finishing behind Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley.

This is the first time the department has placed among the top in the nation in the last ten years, said Professor of Statistics Xiao-Li Meng, who is in his second year as department chairman.

“The Statistics Department has gone from strength to strength in recent years under the energetic leadership of first Don Rubin and, in recent Xiao-Li Meng,” Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby wrote in an e-mail. “Noting that the department is still smaller in size than its peer departments elsewhere, it is clearly pound-for-pound among the very best in the nation.”

Meng said he views the results as a reflection of the overall quality of his department.

“The one thing we were pleased about, none of my faculty actually participated­—there’s no self-serving part here,” he said.

Remaining true to his statistical training, Meng qualified the results.

“The fact that we made it into the top group is much more important than our exact numerical ranking,” Meng said, noting the difficulty of ranking departments linearly. “[The University of] Chicago did not make it into the top three­—in many aspects I think Chicago is stronger than us, so it would be a bit silly to take this ranking as the evidence that we are better than Chicago.”

Concentrators praised their department’s performance.

“I’ve heard nothing for my whole life but about how great Berkeley’s math department is,” said Katherine L. Evans ’08, whose father is a Berkeley mathematician. “It’s nice to see that Harvard is catching up.”

RISING THROUGH THE RANKS

For a department that’s historically had a small number of full-time professors, Statistics’ peak came in 2000, when then-Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles authorized three senior faculty searches, one of which recruited Meng.

The department has been engaged in enlarging the faculty and student population, enhancing its social life, and emphasizing its interdisciplinary nature.

Meng said if current faculty searches are successful, the number of professors could rise to ten, with an additional professor shared with Government.

Meng also said that two years ago, the department did not have any female faculty and today, there are two. He said that the administration has been supportive and helpful in departmental growth, and Kirby acknowledged the positive expansion.

“We are fortunate to be in a period of growth in the department, and Professor Meng and his colleagues have made excellent appointments,” he said.

To create opportunities for student-faculty interaction outside the classroom, Meng has organized “Applied Probability Evening” (poker), “Applied Statistics Evening” (bowling), department talent shows, and movie nights.

The department has certainly socialized well with other academic areas, and will continue to offer interdisciplinary classes. So far, courses have been offered jointly with the Law School, the School of Public Health, the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Economics, and Astronomy.

While graduate students have been at an all time high—nine last year, and possibly ten this year—Meng said “we should and we can greatly increase our undergraduate concentrators.”

To achieve this goal, the department will be offering two specialized tracks: computation of finance, and bioinformatics and computational biology, a field in which the department now has two leading scholars.

—Staff writer Lulu Zhou can be reached at luluzhou@fas.harvard.edu.