Even some professors need help with their math.
That’s why members of the Amherst statistics faculty have offered their services to colleagues in other disciplines whose research requires wrangling numbers, but who are less well-versed in analyzing them for patterns.
A stats professor might help a colleague with an early analysis for a paper. Or the help could come later in the process, when a peer-reviewed article comes back for revisions. “I’ve helped [colleagues in] biology, neuroscience, geology, anthropology, chemistry, computer science,” says Amy S. Wagaman, associate professor of statistics. “We’ve talked to other folks in math. We’ve had questions from people in political science and psychology.”
In fact, she meets weekly with Associate Professor of Chemistry Sheila Jaswal, a collaboration that dates back to 2011, when they were both new to the College. Jaswal’s research on protein folding requires computational simulations to analyze her lab’s data. This can involve uncovering trends in the data using statistical methods she doesn’t have experience with.
“We are doing more interesting work than I would be doing on my own,” Jaswal says, “because two heads are not just better than one—they’re actually like three.”
“When I started my collaboration with Sheila,” Wagaman adds, “I had to spend a whole summer learning chemistry. It took the whole summer for me to finally realize that when Sheila said ‘residue,’ she meant ‘amino acid.’”
“Amy’s a statistics evangelist or a statistics ninja,” Jaswal says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s protein chemistry or evolutionary biology.”
Faculty members have also called on Nicholas Horton, the Beitzel Professor of Technology and Society and professor of statistics. He’s worked, for example, with Assistant Professor of Psychology Carrie Palmquist to create a better model for presenting her research data on how children evaluate adults as trustworthy.
Horton has also consulted with Assistant Professor of Political Science Kerry Ratigan. She turned to Horton for help on problematic data for a journal paper on how local politics in China molds policy at the national level.
“I can do Googling, and I can read the research, but it might take me hours or days, and then I might still not feel completely confident in my answer,” Ratigan says. “But if I talk to someone who really knows the field, if Nick can give me a thumbs up or a thumbs down, then I can feel more confident in the next steps.”
The work is gratifying for the statisticians, too. As an undergraduate at Kenyon College, Wagaman majored not only in math but also in anthropology. “I actually found out that I liked statistics because I saw it being used in anthropology,” she says.
Now, working with fellow Amherst professors, she gets to learn about additional fields and topics. “You get to play in other people’s sandboxes,” she says, “and that’s really enjoyable.”