In just over a week, I will be attending the 2016 Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM) in Chicago, the largest annual gathering of statisticians in North America. I can see my non-statistical friends cringing, but to me it is pure nerdvana! With over 6000 attendees and over 600 sessions, JSM can be overwhelming at best, and downright scary at worst. As I’ve started planning my time in Chicago, I realized that 20 years ago, I attended my very first JSM, also in Chicago, which caused me to stop and reflect on how much has changed in that time.
Twenty years ago, I was in the middle of my Master’s degree at the University of Iowa, a wide-eyed kid trying to figure out what my next steps would be. A group of my classmates and I piled into a car and made our way to Chicago from Iowa City. There were 4 of us, 3 girls and a boy, and we all piled into a single room, with my male classmate respectfully sleeping on the floor. Each night we would all review the program for the next day, amazed by all the different talks we could see, trying to figure out which matched our interests. It was during this meeting that I attended talks which sparked my interest in clinical trials, drove my desire to someday write a statistics in sports paper, and reinforced my professors’ repeated lessons that good communications skills are a vital part of being a statistician. I remember walking into rooms in which I was the only woman, amazed that this was the 90s and that could still happen! I encountered “famous” statisticians (yes, there are such people) and was in awe; I also encountered my first instance of sexual harassment, from which I learned a valuable lesson about humanity. I learned as much from those few days in Chicago as I had in a year in graduate school – different lessons, to be sure, but still a tremendous amount. Most of all, I learned how little I knew, how much more there was to learn, and promptly decided that I needed to stay in school and get my PhD.
Fast forward 20 years, and here I am again, heading to Chicago with 6000 of my closest friends. Now, as a Professor and Department Chair, my perspective is different. I still go to JSM with my eyes wide open, with plans to continue to learn. However, what I learn will be decidedly different. This year at JSM, I will attend a chair workshop, during which I’ll have the chance to learn how to do my job better from others who have been doing it longer. I will meet with colleagues from the National Math Alliance, an amazing organization with a goal of increasing the number of underrepresented students in PhD programs in the math sciences and be reminded of how important it is to have diversity in our profession. I will have the chance to catch up with former classmates and colleagues, during which time we will laugh at the people we once were, and talk about the people we hope to be. And I’ll get to listen to people talk about statistics for 3 days. Three wonderful days during which I will remember what inspired me to be who I am today, and reinvigorate my passion for statistics. I will be inspired to become a better statistician. Because, no matter what my job title, no matter what my day-to-day responsibilities, deep down, I’m still just a nerdy girl who likes statistics and who thinks that data are cool. And maybe I’ll get a good idea for that sports paper I still haven’t written.
Twenty years is a long time, and I’ve come a long way in that time, but I still have a long way to go. The experiences I bring home with me from JSM will help set me on the path for my next 20 years. And who knows, maybe in 2036 I’ll be celebrating JSM back in Chicago!