Statistician Louise Ryan is excited. She’s about to meet a girl who is in her final weeks of high school and trying to figure out what to do at university. The girl likes maths but wants to do something that will “make a difference”.
“I’m excited to meet this girl and say ‘hey, have I got the field for you,” says Ryan, distinguished professor of statistics in the UTS Faculty of Science, chief investigator with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers (ACEMS) and recipient of the prestigious Pitman Medal for 2018.
“When you’re a statistician, you get to do some maths, which is what we like and we’re good at that mathematical thinking. But I consider myself a biostatistician, applying statistics in biology, medicine, health and the environment.
“For those of us who want the satisfaction of working on a real-world problem and making a difference, biostatistics offers that perfect synergy and it has always clicked for me.”
In the mid-1970s, Ryan was that girl – a lover of maths and very good at it, but unsure where it could take her. On the advice of her high school guidance counsellor, she enrolled in actuarial studies.
“I loved the statistics and probability theory we did as part of the course – I’d never heard of it before. It was just so elegant, helping you to make sense of uncertainty, finding patterns in chaos. But I didn’t like the finance side so much.”
Even at four, there was something about numbers that I found satisfying and soothing.
Statistics won the day and Ryan has now spent more than four decades in the field, at Harvard, the CSIRO and, since 2012, in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at UTS. She has developed innovative statistical methods for a wide range of applications, including studies of adverse birth outcomes (for example, understanding the impact of taking anti-convulsants during pregnancy), pre-natal screening technology, clinical trials for cancer treatment and assessing environmental risks associated with exposure to mercury. She is currently part of a large child development project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and is collaborating with developmental psychologists in the United States to understand the effects of low-level foetal exposure to alcohol.
This latest project perfectly illustrates Ryan’s fascination with biostatistics.
“We’re helping to solve a real-world problem but it’s complicated. You’ve got the messiness of real-world data – inter-related information from lots of different questionnaires, missing values, differently designed cohorts, incomplete questionnaires – and you have to try to make sense of that.
“Methodologically, it’s been a very meaty challenge for us. That’s the kind of thing I really like – a perfect synergy of methods and application.”
Ryan fell in love with numbers as a small child, growing up in a busy household in regional NSW where her father was the local shire clerk. When her mum needed to do some chores, out came the puzzles book and a record called Classics for Children.
“I have vivid memories where I’d be counting horses’ legs and doing little number puzzles, things like that, while listening to classical music. Even at four, there was something about numbers that I found satisfying and soothing.”
Now 62, Ryan is devoting more time to giving back to her profession. She says the discipline of statistics in Australia is in a period of challenge, of disruptive innovation due to an explosion of data science – “the expansion of the computer science world into the data science arena”.
“People are saying statistics is old hat, we don’t need it any more. Everything is about computer science, artificial intelligence, machine learning and so on – there’s a bit of hype that comes from that world.
“But our field does need a shake-up; we need to be seen as more cutting edge, engaging more in the business world and helping organisations and companies make better use of their data.
“We need to do what we can to encourage the young people in our field to know what they’re doing is important, that it’s making a difference. We also need to do a better job in talking about what we do and why it is such a rewarding field so we can attract more young people.”
Which brings us back to what Ryan will tell her young school leaver.
“I’m eager to tell her that statistics is a vibrant and exciting field. We get to engage with experts from all around the globe who are wanting to use data to power their work in health, medicine, climate change and the environment.
“It really does offer the perfect career for someone who is mathematically inclined, but who wants to make a difference.
“I think I’ll tell her about one of my heroes, the late John Tukey, who is purported to have said, ‘The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone’s backyard’. I think John was exactly right and it has been one of the things I’ve really loved about my career as a statistician.”