Fifty years ago, Texas A&M University created a tiny graduate program in statistics to teach students to make sense of a world filled with increasing amounts of data. Half a century later, as a data explosion has unfolded that few could have foreseen at the time, the program has become the third-largest and one of the most respected in the country.
This month many of those students — one from as far as Nigeria — were in College Station to join faculty and current students to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Texas A&M Department of Statistics, which has awarded some 700 master’s and doctorates and is lauded for developing students who can thrive in both academia and the private sector.
“The Texas A&M program has grown exponentially,” said Bill Smith, who graduated with a doctorate in 1966 after earning a master’s in mathematics in 1960, later became a faculty member and department head from 1977-86, and still teaches a course a semester. “We hit at exactly the right time. The university started growing, and women were admitted. And it’s mostly because of the way you hire. If you hire good people with good reputations, students are attracted from other places. And that’s what Texas A&M did.”
Founded in 1962 and initially led by internationally renowned statistician H.O. Hartley, the program — then called the Graduate Institute of Statistics — only had a handful of faculty members and two graduate students. This upcoming academic year, the institute that officially became a department in 1984 is set to have 32 tenured or tenure-track faculty and more than 400 graduate students when including those enrolled in an online distance education program created in 2006. In addition, roughly 5,500 Texas A&M undergraduates take a statistics course each year.
The gala event, held May 17 at the College Station Hilton Hotel and Conference Center, honored those current and former graduate students, along with faculty and staff. But it was as much a celebration of the future as the past. Statistics is used in the development of cancer drugs, political polling, vehicle safety, jury selection and just about any other area that requires the analysis of data. In an era when data is expanding exponentially, statisticians are poised to play an even greater role in the world, many of the former students said.
“I think we’re entering a phase where statistics is going to become part of basic literacy no matter what you do,” said Roland Acra, who graduated with a master’s in 1986. “The world around us is now instrumented and digitized. Your cell phones have more and more sensors in them capturing data, from temperature to vibration, so what we didn’t used to think of as data is being turned into data without any effort by us. That data is now a treasure trove of insights and correlations and predictions. I tell my children that math and statistics are going to become very important even if you have no intention of being a scientist.”
Acra said that one strength of the Texas A&M statistics department was that it allowed him the flexibility to pursue his interests. His adviser at the time, H. Joseph Newton, who was head of the department from 1990-97 and has served since 2002 as dean of the College of Science, allowed him for his thesis to write a library in a language statisticians at the time weren’t using, C programming.
“He said, ‘Knock yourself out,’” said Acra, who went on to serve as senior vice president and chief technology officer for Cisco Systems’ service provider market. “That experience is, to a large part, what stood out on my resume. And what I learned at Texas A&M helped me get my first job even though my first job was not in statistics.”
Other students like Michael Kutner, who graduated from the program with a doctorate in 1971, went the academic route. Kutner served as chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, a non-profit academic medical center, and now serves on the faculty of Emory University.
“I came back for this celebration because Texas A&M means a lot to me — it taught me how to do independent statistical research that provided the foundation for my career,” Kutner said near an actual red carpet that was rented for the occasion to welcome the former students honored at the dinner.
Like Kutner, another Texas A&M graduate, Ersen Arseven, has used his expertise in his career to impact the medical field. The biostatistician was part of a two-person team that established the anti-cancer activity of the compound Mitoxantrone, which was used for treatment of various types of leukemia and is still used for the treatment of metastatic prostate cancer. Arseven, like many of the former students, credited one of the department’s early faculty members, Ron Hocking, with the success of his life.
“Dr. Hocking taught us a motto we never forgot. He said, ‘First, do you know what you’re doing? And second, is what you think you’re testing actually what you’re testing?’” Arseven said. “He had a tremendous impact on me. He helped me transfer from economics to statistics. I owe wherever I am to Ron Hocking.”
The department continues to evolve. In 2006, the Texas A&M System Board of Regents approved a master’s of science statistics program for distance delivery. To date more than 55 professionals have graduated from the program, including Michelle Pflueger, who completed her master’s in 2011 and now works as an operations superintendent for Chevron, where she manages a production storage and offloading vessel off the coast of Nigeria. She said the Texas A&M program allowed her to complete her master’s while working.
In 2010, U.S. News and World Report named the Texas A&M statistics program the 12th best among all universities (third among public institutions). And in 2012, the department launched an external company, Texas A&M Statistical Services LP, to provide planning assessments and analytics services to companies throughout Texas and the U.S.
“The status of the department has improved across the university and across the nation,” said Simon J. Sheather, who has served as department head since 2005. “Whenever you go to a national meeting, people are heard saying, ‘What is A&M doing?’ I was kind of crazy in hindsight to move from a harbor-side apartment in Sydney, Australia down to College Station. But it’s by far the best professional decision I ever made.”
For more information about the Texas A&M Department of Statistics, visit http://www.stat.tamu.edu/.