Effecting Change with Statistics and Data: An Interview with Statistician Talithia Williams

Dr. Talithia Williams knows what it takes to effect change through statistics.

An associate dean for research and experiential learning and an associate professor at Harvey Mudd College, Talithia’s work doesn’t stop at engaging students with statistics. She is the co-host of the new PBS series NOVA Wonders, where researchers tackle questions about life and the cosmos with science. She recently gave a very successful TED talk on how collecting and monitoring data (the beginning step to any statistical exercise) can help people make better personal health decisions. She also is developing statistical models with the World Health Organization to use statistics to predict the cataract surgical rate for countries in Africa. On top of all that, she has worked on research for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the National Security Agency.

This is Statistics had the opportunity to talk to Talithia about how statistics can positively effect change with students, in our daily lives and on a global level.

How did you first become interested in statistics?

I was at Howard University working on a Ph.D. in math and took mathematical statistics, followed by a biostatistics course. I thought that course was neat because we looked at the data of women who smoke during their pregnancy in correlation to low birth weight and low gestational age. That data led to the warning that is on cigarette labels, and I was amazed that you can collect data to effect big change and change policy. Just a few years ago, people didn’t know the effects smoking had on infants, or the power statistics had to change policy. I started thinking more about statistics and data, and transferred to a Ph.D. in statistics at Rice University.

Your TED talk is about using data to inform your own health and medical decisions. What statistics should we know about our own health?

I think that it’s helpful to know as much as we can about our health. There are many tools and resources that we have to help us record that.

How else can statistics impact our daily, personal lives?

Statistics is one of the few fields that can take us from the experiences of a single person to the collective experiences of a large group of people.

Statistics is one of the few fields that can take us from the experiences of a single person to the collective experiences of a large group of people.

For example, if I tell you that I know someone who got food poisoning from eating at a certain fast food restaurant, that might not mean much for you personally. But if I said that within the last month, 32 percent of people who ate at particular fast food restaurants in Atlanta, GA, got food poisoning, you have a better idea of how that illness may affect you. On a daily basis, we see statistics when forecasting the weather or predicting when and where hurricanes are likely to hit. With hurricanes, for example, emergency services rely on statistics to tell them when danger may occur.

On a grander scale, how do statistics impact the world around us? Can you share an example from your own professional experience?

A lot of the work that I’m doing in modeling cataracts for countries in Africa deals with how to eliminate this disease in the world. I can use statistics to determine the rate at which people develop cataracts over time, pinpointing where these people are and knowing which countries to give aid to through my statistics background. Any time we turn on the news, and the weather comes on for example, you’re given a statistic that leads people to make decisions.

How do you use statistics in your current work?

In addition to the cataract modeling, I’ve been looking at health data and how we can better quantify large amounts of data. I’m modeling large amounts of DNA data and I think the field is ripe because so many companies and industries have massive amounts of information they can get their hands on. That’s why my students and I help companies analyze and visualize data to make them more profitable and more effective. I’ve been reaching out to do more science communication with the public and to get the next generation excited about STEM and statistics. Statistics is a vehicle to share my passion for STEM with the next generation.

What should every person know about statistics?

Statistics in general, and data in particular, allows us to collect information about the world around us and make sense of everyday facts and figures. For example, data show that around 90 percent of lung cancers are smoking-related.  While we can’t say that smoking causes lung cancer, we can use this information to make better decisions about our health.

What do you think is the most important skill for someone studying statistics to have?

Perseverance and optimism. I think the field is exciting and to make an impact in the field you have to push through and persevere. I remember in grad school, I would love getting down and dirty with data. Other times, I had to push through the work to get to the data.

What advice would you give students considering a statistics class?

Same advice I give my students who take classes with me, which is to look at job opportunities and know that whoever can understand statistics and data science, can go into any field they want to pursue and look at the data from that vantage point. That’s why they should incorporate statistics courses into their graduate careers because it will help them be better at whatever they choose to do.

Whoever can understand statistics and data science, can go into any field they want to pursue and look at the data from that vantage point.

Interested in learning more about what statisticians do and how statistics can help change the world? You can check out our interview with data journalist, Ryan Struyk, hear more about what statisticians have to say, and find out how statistics plays a role in human rights advocacy.




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