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Statistics Department Celebrates 50 Years

The Statistics Department celebrated its 50th anniversary this weekend with a two-day symposium, uniting professors, students, and alums with a shared passion for data sets, regressions, and standard deviations.

The event kicked off on Friday morning with speeches from Department Chair Xiao-Li Meng, Dean for the Physical Sciences Jeremy Bloxham, and University President Drew G. Faust, among others.

The celebration featured panels on how sectors of the field have changed over the past 50 years, and speakers sought to show the impact that Harvard statistics faculty have had within their discipline.

The weekend’s proceedings also served to commemorate the department’s founder, C. Frederick Mosteller, a specialist in public health, medicine, and education who died last summer.

“Fred was the constant educator,” Conant Professor of Education Judith D. Singer said in a speech Friday afternoon.

Mosteller served as the department’s first chairman when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) established it, after a two-minute faculty debate, in 1957. Previously, statistics courses at Harvard had been taught within other departments.

Statisticians at the event said the department has come a long way in half a century.

Fifth-year graduate student Tingting Zhang, one of 20 students who presented their dissertations at the symposium, noted that “the department now offers more courses, and the range of courses is much larger.”

At the undergraduate level, the department hosts a relatively small number of concentrators. According to the FAS Handbook for Students, nine members of the Class of 2002 concentrated in statistics, the highest figure in the past five years. The lowest came with the Class of 2005, which had four.

But the department’s introductory courses often attract high enrollment numbers.

This fall, 510 undergraduates are taking Statistics 100, Statistics 104, or Statistics 110, three of the department’s introductory courses in quantitative methods and probability.

When Friday’s daytime festivities came to a close, attendees moved farther down the Charles River to a cocktail reception and banquet at the downtown branch of the Harvard Club of Boston. Musical entertainment at the event included performances from Professor of Biostatistics Nan M. Laird and FAS Executive Dean Nancy L. Maull.

After another day of speeches and mingling, Meng closed Saturday’s activities with a talk about the department’s progress as well as its goals, focusing on expanding the size of the statistics faculty.

“The deans have promised that we will double the department, and now we need to find people,” he said. “If you look at the future, and at the past, you see that it’s so important to have great faculty here.”

The entire event culminated Saturday evening with an outing to Kings Bowling Billiards and Lounge in Boston.

“No prior experience required,” the event’s program read.

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