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A statistical collaboration

By Alexandra Wertz '12
November 21, 2011

Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald (right) talks with (from left) Thomas Hegland '13, Eric King '14, CIR Director Paul Roback, and Charlotte Sivanich '12. The students are helping Fitzgerald analyze data for his book on the history of Reconstruction in Alabama.

Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald enthusiastically draws the shape of Alabama on a white board, marking certain counties, circling different towns, and talking a mile a minute about voting trends in the Reconstruction era. Meanwhile, Thomas Hegland '13 sits in a desk and scrambles to jot down notes, trying to catch all the information spilling out of Fitzgerald.

Then they switch. Hegland is now at the whiteboard, vigorously drawing statistical charts and graphs while Fitzgerald sits in a desk and listens.

They give and take, teaching each other what they know, learning from the other what they don't. This is the nature of the St. Olaf Center for Interdisciplinary Research (CIR), a program that pairs statistics students with faculty members across disciplines to help them translate their research into statistical language. The CIR fellows, like Helgand, get hands-on research opportunities that allow them to apply their statistical knowledge in other fields. The faculty members, like Fitzgerald, get valuable statistical analysis of their own research.

Fitzgerald is in the process of writing a book that examines the history of Reconstruction in Alabama, the first full-scale study of its kind in a century. Hegland — along with CIR fellows Charlotte Sivanich '12 and Eric King '14 — is currently testing some of Fitzgerald's hypotheses with statistics. "It's an interesting time period to look at," Hegland says. "This was the only time period before the civil rights movement when the federal government actually put some effort into enforcing racial equality with respect to voting rights and so forth in the South."

"Just having the opportunity to work with data about real, actual people is really great preparation for going on to use my statistical skills when looking at other questions of economics and politics," says Thomas Hegland '13 (center), a CIR fellow who is working on a project with Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald.

Though Hegland, a mathematics and economics major with a concentration in statistics, knows a lot about statistics, his job as a CIR fellow requires him to apply those skills to disciplines he's less familiar with. "The process of translating history into statistics — and back again — is actually very challenging," he says. "Statisticians can't afford to just run the numbers and be done with it. We sort of have to act like journalists and look to answer the classic 'who, what, when, where, and why' questions that show up in our data."

Though the subject matter of his CIR project is unrelated to Hegland's aspiration to attend graduate school for economics, he enjoys approaching statistics from a completely new angle. "Just having the opportunity to work with data about real, actual people is really great preparation for going on to use my statistical skills when looking at other questions of economics and politics," he says. "It serves as an excellent reminder that people are more than just the numbers we have recorded, and that in reality all sorts of quirks pop up into the historical record. This project definitely helps to keep statistics in perspective for me so I remember that, most importantly, it should be used as a tool for helping to understand people."

The roots of CIR
In 2004 St. Olaf received a five-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The grant was aimed at attracting more students to graduate study and careers in statistics, especially through successful interdisciplinary, collaborative research experiences as undergraduates. Thus began the CIR. This year St. Olaf received a five-year, $1.6 million grant from the NSF to expand the program to applied mathematics and computer science.

There are typically 18-20 CIR Fellows in the program each year. "This year we have students collaborating on research projects ranging from stylistic variations in translations of O.E. Rolvaag novels to neuron classification related to light sensitivity in the eyes to yield models in the college admissions process," says CIR Director Paul Roback, an associate professor of mathematics, statistics, and computer science at St. Olaf. "Over the course of a year, the fellows in the CIR not only become well-versed in the area of their project, but hopefully make meaningful contributions to the quantitative aspects of research in that area."

In addition to the students' individual projects, all CIR students come together once a week for a seminar series where they discuss topics ranging from consulting skills to statistical ethics to oral presentation skills to poster preparation to career and graduate school opportunities.

"Students benefit from the program in a variety of ways, including communicating with non-statisticians to formulate research questions and learning how to communicate results orally with posters and written manuscripts," says Julie Legler, professor of statistics and co-founder of the CIR. "In addition, the students learn about the different projects other students are working on, thereby discovering many different kinds of applications in the field of statistics."

A program unique to St. Olaf
While there are many statistical consulting centers at graduate programs around the country, Roback says there is no center that's similar to CIR in scope and scale at undergraduate institutions.

"I think it has flourished here because of the quality, energy, and cooperation of the faculty and staff. As I speak with colleagues around campus, I'm constantly amazed at the intellectual energy and creativity, and I am appreciative that colleagues are extremely willing to engage in these interdisciplinary collaborations," Roback says. "And, of course, without outstanding students who produce valuable work, the CIR never would have made it out of the blocks."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or