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Statisticians Do What?! An Interview with Dr. Emily Griffith

We’ll let you in on a little secret: Even some statisticians who now have their PhDs didn’t initially recognize the range of opportunities that a degree in statistics would make available!

Emily Griffith is a great example of one such statistician. “I always say that I ended up majoring in statistics in college because I couldn’t pick a major,” Dr. Griffith shared with us when we recently caught up with her to learn more about the range of opportunities that her advanced studies in statistics opened up for her professionally. “I took a statistics course to avoid math, and I liked it! My professor suggested I take another course, and I liked that one too. Funnily enough, I ended up earning a math minor to allow me to keep taking the statistics classes I wanted to take,”

Keep reading for more on our conversation with Dr. Griffith.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, the Center for Coastal Habitat and Fisheries Research — Your CV is quite interesting and that’s just listing a few of your previous employers! Can you tell us more about how you found these unique opportunities to apply your Statistics background?

EG: I’ve always been interested in what scientists do, even though I didn’t particularly enjoy science classes. One of the things I love about statistics is that you can work with so many different fields. As a graduate student, my research focused on sampling wildlife, specifically fish. It’s surprisingly difficult to figure out how many fish there are in a lake, for example.

That’s how I got an internship with ocean researchers at Center for Coastal Habitat and Fisheries Research. I worked on analyzing patterns of seagrass on the ocean floor. Is it patchy? Are the patches large and dense or small and scattered? We also worked on some capture-recapture studies with fish in tidal marshes. I got to go out in the field a few times, too.

What’s especially notable is that your areas of focus have varied throughout recent years.

EG: That’s true! There are so many different kinds of opportunities in the field of statistics. My experience has been that if you look around and ask people for advice, you can find an interesting job in almost any area of application.

As an example, I’m also interested in spatial statistics, and my advisor helped me find a postdoctoral opportunity at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. It was great working with ecologists and ornithologists to study the changes in populations of native songbirds in the conterminous US.

My thesis work focused on lake trout returning to their spawning ground every year. I’m also interested in looking at the ways that animal populations change across their habitat. My thesis advisor helped me find a postdoctoral opportunity at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. It was great working with ecologists and ornithologists. We studied population changes in songbirds, and we also looked at how traffic noise can make it harder to find songbirds.

Many students think a degree in statistics will lead straight to a “desk job.” Your experience definitely proves that wrong! What would you say to these potential statisticians?  

EG: As a statistician, some time is spent behind the desk, of course, but what sets it apart from a boring “desk job” is the fun and satisfying work of learning about what kinds of things other people do and helping them do what they want to do. A bonus: If you work with people who do field work they’re also usually happy to take you out with them!

Now for what’s likely a tough question: What are the three most interesting projects that you’ve worked on during your career?

EG: I’m obviously really enthusiastic about everything I get to do! But I think these three projects were the most interesting to me in my statistics career so far:

  1. I taught a special topics short course at the Center for Coastal Habitat and Fisheries Research when I was a graduate student. I covered a topic a week for a group of marine biologists. They pulled together a list of statistical ideas that they’d heard of, and I got to explain what the technique was, when to use it, and how they could use it in their work. It was quite a challenge and I learned a lot of new techniques, too!
  2. One of the groups I really enjoy working with at the College of Veterinary Medicine here at State is the Behavioral Medicine group. I worked on a study testing an anti-anxiety drug in cats. The goal was to find a way to make it easier to take your cat to the vet. It turns out that one of the major obstacles to getting good veterinary care for cats is how awful they can be about getting into their carriers and riding in the car. I’m always happy to work on a study that has a real impact for people and that will make their lives better.
  3. I’ve worked with several entomologists at NC State, one of whom was studying an emerging population of cockroaches that don’t like the taste of sugar. It’s an adaptation to roach poison, which tends to be sweet. It was a pretty disgusting project (they had video! With sound!), but I’m glad to know that there are people working hard on figuring out new ways to manage these pests.

Check back regularly to learn more about the world of opportunity that advanced studies in statistics can open up for you! Heard enough and ready to take the next step towards your statistics career? Find out more about NC State’s Statistics Online programs here.

Photo credit: Jo. via Flickr

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