Award-winning summer statistics institute prepares students for graduate studies

New Math Department Chair Javier Rojo brings program to University

7/24/2014 - By: Mike Wolterbeek
summer of statistics Javier Rojo, chair and professor in the Mathematics and Statistics Department in the College of Science, talks with students between presentations at the StatFest, a day-long series of presentation that is part of the Research for Undergraduates Summer Institute of Statistics at the University of Nevada, Reno, RUSIS@UNR. Photo by Mike Wolterbeek, University of Nevada, Reno.

Ten students are subjecting themselves to a summer of statistics at Javier Rojo's undergraduate research institute at the University of Nevada, Reno. The students come from across the country and are selected on academic performance, as well as perseverance and creativity that signal potential for success in graduate school.

The mission of the intensive 10-week summer program at the University of Nevada, Reno, which began at the end of May, is to train and mentor under­represented, minority undergraduate students, in particular those students without easy access to career experiences. The institute stimulates interest in statistics by exposing the students to actual research problems in the field and by providing guidance and encouragement to pursue a doctorate in the mathematical sciences.

Rojo joined the University of Nevada, Reno as chair of the Mathematics and Statistics Department in 2014, coming to Reno from Rice University where he first established the institute in 2003. This summer marks the first year for the Research for Undergraduates Summer Institute of Statistics at the University of Nevada, Reno, RUSIS@UNR, at its new home.

The undergrad students will present research projects to the six-person RUSIS advisory committee on the final day, Thursday, July31. The advisory team includes mathematical scientists from a variety of institutions, such as Georgia Tech; Pfizer Pharmaceutical; University of Texas, El Paso; Texas A&M and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Most of the research projects focus on understanding, developing and assessing the merit of new methodologies in the areas of multivariate survival analysis, multivariate extreme value theory, analysis of microarray data, analysis of massive data sets and other biomedical and statistical problems.

The committee members also deliver short, inspirational lectures highlighting the role of statistics in their disciplines and providing new perspectives on science, engineering and career opportunities.

As the country's first Research Experiences for Undergraduates program focusing on the field of statistics, the institute has been phenomenally successful. Of the participants who graduated from college, 83 percent have gone on to graduate school.

"This high percentage is especially remarkable because at the start of the program, only a few indicate they have considered going to graduate school," Rojo said.

His program received the 2014 Mathematics Programs That Make a Difference award from the American Mathematical Society. The Summer Institute of Statistics is one of just two programs in the country selected by the AMS's Committee on the Profession for the recognition.

"The Summer Institute in Statistics has been making a difference since it began in 2003," said Allan Greenleaf of the University of Rochester, who serves as chair of the Committee on the Profession. "With a focus on students from groups which have traditionally been underrepresented in the mathematical sciences, RUSIS gets students involved in research projects in statistics, while also crucially providing devoted mentoring and practical information about how to succeed in graduate school."

"This is a great way to get students interested in careers and opportunities in mathematics and statistics," Jeff Thompson, dean of the University of Nevada, Reno College of Science, said. "This will help connect our programs with employers from the area and around the country."

In addition to the advisory committee, Rojo brought speakers to the StatFest, a one-day conference within the summer institute designed to showcase the work by statisticians in all realms of human endeavors, and by doing so, to encourage undergraduate students to pursue graduate careers in the statistical sciences. Speakers came from The Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.; Pfizer Pharmaceutical Inc.; Employers Insurance Co.; and Chevron Oronite Company LLC.

The StatFest and the summer institute point out the need for professionals with high-level quantitative training in all areas, from medicine to engineering to communications. A doctorate in statistics opens doors to a broad variety of excellent pro­fessional opportunities; yet, many students with an aptitude for studying statistics are unaware of the great opportunities the field offers.

"It definitely has given me more knowledge of statistics, and it has given me the motivation to pursue greater things in this field," Rosa Torres, a student in the institute said. "It is rare to find programs where they provide you with as much skill, knowledge and opportunities as RUSIS has provided. It has also given me the opportunity to step closer into the field that I hope to be in one day. The institute was a great way to understand statistics and what the field could provide."

At Rice University in Houston, Texas, Rojo was a professor of statistics. He has been a statistics program director at the National Science Foundation, is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a fellow or member of several other renowned national and international organizations.

In 2013, he was a member of the National Science Foundation Division of Mathematical Sciences Committee of Visitors, a panel of external experts that helps the NSF maintain its high standards of program management, continuous performance improvement, and openness to the research and education community.


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