An Institute’s Bright Future: Paving the Way for Collaboration and Engagement
As director of the Institute for Research on Statistics and its Applications (IRSA), no workday is the same for Associate Professor Singdhansu Chatterjee. Between organizing workshops and events for the institute to conducting research on local and global issues, Singdhansu sees up close the use and practicalities of statistics. The institute is involved in a number of different research projects, including neuroscience, climate change, and more localized issues such as food production here in Minnesota.
“I want the institute to foster collaboration,” Singdhansu notes, emphasizing that statistics thrives on connections between different disciplines. He discusses how professors need to appreciate many different ways of approaching an open scientific problem in order to properly solve it. He shares the example of cancer research: while there is obviously a medical and biological component to it, there is also the need for statistical analysis to interpret the data.
IRSA's three main parts
When asked about IRSA and its purpose, Singdhansu describes three major components. “The institute is involved in data science in nature, data science in society, and data science theory, methods, algorithms and software,” he says. Data science in nature is the component that features data-driven research in biological and physical systems, for example, in neuroscience or climate change. Data science in society is research relating to data-driven approaches to addressing societal and human issues, such as food insecurity or poverty. Lastly, data science theory involves mathematical discoveries, development of new methods and algorithms and creation of software tools to aid research. He describes these three components as arms branching out from the field of statistics, often overlapping and interconnected.
In order to build on this idea of collaboration and connection, Singdhansu and faculty within the department recognize the benefits of workshops. Not only do they allow interaction between different departments but they also allow unique opportunities to learn about something new and interesting. The institute held its first workshop on May 5-6 entitled “Neuro-Statistics: The Interface Between Neuroscience and Statistics.” The workshop focused on the science and activity surrounding the brain and featured speakers from across the United States and abroad. “We all looked at this grand problem of the human brain and we brought these experts together under this one roof,” Singdhansu exclaims, very excited about the discussions and collaboration the workshop brought.
Because this workshop is the institute’s first, it is a prototype for future workshops and events hosted by IRSA. “We’ve already had requests for more workshops on a variety of topics,” Singdhansu says. Specifically, there have been requests for a workshop on how to create and interpret multilevel, or hierarchical, models. Statistics often requires more complicated models to interpret data, and this workshop would focus on how to create those models and then how to analyze them. Another request has been for a workshop on the basics of using software for data analytics. “Data analytics is a very basic skill now and there is a demand for it in many different fields,” Singdhansu says, emphasizing how this statistical skill is used unintentionally in so many different careers.
Weeding out the misinformation
Besides collaboration, the institute was also created in order to get meaningful answers from large amounts of data. In a world where we are constantly surrounded by data and numbers, it is important to filter out the misinformation. “Some of it is irrelevant and statistics helps you sort that out,” Singdhansu says. He describes how data contains information relevant for the problem at hand and the question of interest, information about unrelated issues, and misinformation that can be misleading and inaccurate. In order to break apart these large amounts of data and discover the reality behind it all, the world needs statistics and its applications. “Any time we look at plots and graphs, we perceive a 2D picture,” Singdhansu states. “By adding a statistical element, we can see the other dimensions to it.”
An open door to solve data problems
The institute also provides statistical consulting for projects and other research ventures. “If you have a data or statistical problem, here at the institute we can help you solve it,” Singdhansu exclaims, emphasizing that this resource is accessible to anyone at the university as well as to the larger community. Consulting can be beneficial especially during the initial state of a project when proper design and analysis is crucial to a project’s success. The institute is grounded in the fundamentals of statistics and is a perfect example of how numbers can help solve different problems and issues people encounter.
Workshops are open to the public and Singdhansu encourages people from all different backgrounds and disciplines to register and attend. Especially for students, both undergraduate and graduate, workshops allow for interaction with professors and faculty as well as exposure to different topics outside of their classes. The workshop in May also included a poster session at the end where students showcased their own research involving the brain. At the beginning of the workshop, attendees were exposed to a “short course” of the information being discussed, meaning they were introduced to the basics of the subject. “It’s good to be exposed to different topics,” Singdhansu states. “It makes you think of a problem in a different way, causing a synergy effect.”
Community engagement is also a key component to the institute’s goals. By offering workshops and other events geared towards collaboration between different fields and perspectives, Singdhansu hopes to help both the surrounding and global communities solve scientific and societal issues. The School of Statistics’ emphasis on collaboration and engagement is extended by the institute, which was created to branch out into different areas. As director, Singdhansu is excited to see what the future has in store for the institute and how it will be used to help address the world’s biggest challenges.