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Statistics Department Hopes to Continue Growth

By Akua F. Abu and Radhika Jain, Crimson Staff Writers

With Wednesday's deadline for sophomore concentration declarations imminent, Harvard’s Statistics Department looks to continue an escalation that has seen the concentration expand from 5 to 50 concentrators since 2005.

Joseph K. Blitzstein, co-director of undergraduate studies for the statistics department, attributes the growth trends to factors outside and within Harvard.

“Nationally there’s just more and more data out there and more and more large complicated data sets that people don’t know what to do with,” he said.

On a smaller scale, the statistics department has made a particular effort to dissipate the common perception that statistics is an inaccessible and “recipe-oriented” field of study, according to David P. Harrington, co-director of undergraduate studies with Blitzstein.

“When you get into college and you hear about statistics, if you haven’t been previously exposed to the subject, you might think ‘Well, what the hell is this and how can it help me?’” said Tirthankar Dasgupta, co-director of graduate studies.

The department frequently hosts lunches and information sessions to talk about statistics’ diverse real-life applications—from rethinking the prediction of risk after the financial crisis to forming probabilistic arguments regarding prostate cancer screening.

“We know about economics. We know about finance.  But it may not be as obvious how important a role statistics plays in the social sciences, the physical sciences, and other fields,” said Dasgupta. “It really allows you to make better inferences–that’s what we try to emphasize.”

Concentrators can opt to follow one of three tracks—finance, computational biology, or general statistics.Blitzstein said he thinks the skills acquired in statistics classes offer advantages in the job search.

“It helps students to stand out a little bit more,” he said. “They love asking [about] probability on the job interview.”

Blitzstein expects around 20 sophomores, a similar number as last fall, to declare statistics this year.

“Some students from other concentrations feel very, very anonymous,” he said. “This department, since it’s smaller, it feels much more like a community.”

Concentrators can study and socialize in a statistics lounge space on the seventh floor of the Science Center and are frequently provided free food at events. The department even heeded student advice and spent part of a $25,000 Dean’s Prize for Innovations in Graduate Education on a massage chair.

“The faculty is extremely accessible. You can ask them about setting up a meeting and they’ll email you back within minutes,” said concentrator Rebecca S. Goldstein ’13.

Alice Xiang ’13, who was originally considering concentrating in applied mathematics, says that the intimacy of the department was one factor that drew her to statistics instead.

“A group of us who have taken [Statistics] 110 went out to eat Chinese food with Joe [Blitzstein],” she said. “You don’t get as many little things like that in other departments.”

But professors fear that the personal quality that has attracted so many might disappear if students continue to flock to the concentration at the current rate.

The number of students in Statistics 110, one of two required classes for the concentration, has tripled in the last five years—despite Blitzstein’s assurance that he has not made the class any easier.

The department plans to hire at least one new faculty member by next fall to accommodate growth.

“Big is not bad,” said Harrington, “but past concentrators have really stressed the fact that they liked working in smaller groups where you actually got to meet and work with the faculty.”

—Staff writer Akua F. Abu can be reached at aabu@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at radhikajain@college.harvard.edu.

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