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May 27, 2014

We don’t need another hero … or do we?

Those of us who grew up in the 1980s are likely very familiar with Tina Turner’s song from the soundtrack of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the inspiration for the title of today’s post. If not, here is your opportunity to catch up. Now that we’re all on the same page, our celebration of statistics has me thinking about the statistical and mathematical heroes – mentors – that have challenged and guided me to where I am today.

Once in a while, our mentors may be honest-to-goodness superheroes. In middle school, I had a mild-mannered mathematics teacher whose alter-ego Math-Mo-Man made the world safer through the power of mathematics. We never knew when Math-Mo-Man would show up, but the anticipation that “today could be the day” was infectious. Call me crazy, but you have to admire someone willing to wear red and yellow tights, a cape and mask to energize kids to love math, especially when they are learning algebra for the first time. This extra effort to make math fun and exciting can capture a young mind for a lifetime.

Most of the time, however, our mentors are regular people: our parents, teachers, professors or supervisors. They educate, challenge and guide us. They help us find the right path so that we’re not wandering in the woods, recreating everything from scratch. After all, there are plenty of new problems begging for solutions.

Like many young people, I had no real idea of what I was going to study at college, or what kind of career I wanted. Initially, computers seemed like a good idea. After all, computers did powerful things, and you could at least play games with them. However, after the first three or four weeks of undergrad, I had my first major epiphany: I remembered that I really enjoyed math.

I immediately switched my major to mathematics. Eventually, my upper-level courses were dominated by those in probability and statistics. I wish I could say that this change was the result of the written contributions of a well-known statistician or an insightful lecture that I witnessed. In actuality, my interest in probability mirrored my interest in strategy games: computer games, board games, card games, you name it. I wanted to better understand the rules of probability so that I could participate in these games more effectively. So while I gained an understanding of probability, I also gained an appreciation for statistics.

While an upperclassman, the mathematics and statistics department of my undergraduate university hired a biostatistician. While I initially planned to find a job after school, he encouraged me to continue my education in biostatistics. Still without a clear idea of what I wanted to do, I applied to several biostatistics master's programs. Biostatistics seemed an appealing way for me to contribute to medical research. Medicine had become increasingly important to me due to the health challenges of several loved ones.

Midway through my master’s degree, the Director of Graduate Studies encouraged me to continue with education and get my doctorate. He even offered to put me on a training grant that he chaired. Initially, I turned this offer down. After several weeks of reflection, however, I came crawling back asking (read: begging) if the offer was still available. Four years later, I completed my dissertation.

There are several instances described above when the encouragement and mentoring of others put me on a very good path, even when I couldn’t see or understand that path for myself. Throughout school and even since then, I have had several excellent mentors that provided advice and useful feedback, and these relationships drive me to do the best work I can.

So our challenge in the International Year of Statistics is to be the best statistical mentors we can be. To keep statistics a healthy and vibrant discipline, we need to recruit and inspire new minds. We need to reach out and educate our colleagues, and in turn, educate ourselves in new areas of application. Our encouragement can help fledgling statisticians find their wings; our collaborations will bring understanding and appreciation of statistics to those individuals who are uncomfortable with “all of the numbers.” If we are successful, we won’t need a special year to educate people on the impact of statistics.

They’ll just know.