Professor Spotlight: Michael Parzen on ‘Sexy’ Statistics

Michael Isaac Parzen is a Senior Lecturer on Statistics in the Harvard University Statistics Department. Parzen is currently researching statistical methods relating to non-standard regression, resampling, and computational statistics amongst other fields. Statistics 104: “Introduction to Quantitative Methods for Economics” and Statistics 107: “Introduction to Business and Financial Statistics,” both taught by Parzen, are two of the most popular courses offered at Harvard College.

The Harvard Crimson: You tell your students that Statistics is the new “sexy” field. Why do you think that is the case?

Michael Isaac Parzen: Everyone wants to be in the field that’s “sexy,” so statisticians rejoiced when the New York Times printed that we are now “sexy” [written in an article by Google economist Hal Varian]. I think there is a preponderance of data now with Facebook, Google, and texting [and] I think that as people get more and more in touch with technology they realize how much data they’re using and how much data they’re producing on a daily basis, and they want to be able to understand it, manipulate it.

THC: How do you keep students engaged throughout your lectures?

MIP: It’s tough. There is no magic table of contents ... The only way to engage the students is to have hopefully interesting examples and have lots of energy in class … Let’s pretend this is a 30 person class so everyone feels it’s intimate and they’re in a small-classroom setting and let’s give them the best educational experience possible in 53 minutes. You’re trying to engage them and you want people to wake up and say ‘I want to go to class.’

THC: What do you think is signified by the enormous popularity of Stat 104 and Stat 107?

MIP: We were taken by surprise. We were over 500, and we thought it was an error [on Study Card Night] ... we weren’t ready for that number. We still don’t know why we had that number and it’s a weird phenomenon ... No one wants a huge class by nature but we give the students a lot of support because we don’t want them to feel like they can get lost in this huge class.

THC: What advice do you have for students interested in Statistics?

MIP: Take lots of courses. What we like to say is that our concentrators look at the same jobs, if not better jobs, as an Ec concentrator, as a Gov concentrator, as a Computer Science concentrator…To be able to say you can summarize data, you can visualize data, you can analyze data, model data, that’s a skill any company would want. It’s a great field to be interested in … It’s great knowledge to have on your resume and it’s a great skill to have no matter what you plan on doing—graduate school or a full-time job.

—Staff writer Danny J. Kramer can be reached at dkramer@college.harvard.edu.

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