The American Statistical Association (ASA) has named BYU statistics professor Dr. William Christensen as a 2016 Fellow of their organization. This prestigious honor distinguishes Christensen, along with 64 other members of the ASA, for his professional contributions, leadership, and commitment to the field of statistical science.
Founded in 1914, ASA is the world’s largest community of statisticians and the oldest continuously operating professional statistics society in the United States. In more than 90 countries, members work in industry, government, and academia.
“They have sections of the ASA that correspond to different interests,” Christensen said. “I’m active in the section on Statistics and the Environment, and there’s a committee in that section that tries to nominate worthy members each year. This year, they decided to nominate me.” In being named a Fellow, Christensen is just the 6th Utahn to be given this distinction.
The ASA evaluates the nominated members on specific criteria: 1) research, 2) fostering statistical collaborations, 3) teaching and dissemination of knowledge, 4) curriculum development, 5) mentoring, 6) leadership and participation in ASA, 7) local community outreach, and 8) scientific community outreach.
The ASA credits Christensen for his “contributions to multivariate analysis; for research in environmental statistics, particularly in the area of pollution source attribution; for outstanding teaching and mentoring; and for exceptional service to the ASA.”
In the fall, Christensen will be taking a sabbatical from his teaching duties at BYU to perform research at Columbia University in New York. He will also present seminars and attend conferences while sojourning at the Ivy League university.
“I’m visiting the Biostatistics Department in Washington Heights,” Christensen said. “I’ve got a colleague there who has a joint appointment in biostatistics and psychiatry, and we both do factor analysis and structural equation modeling. I’m interested in trying to get her to help me on a project that involves structural equation modeling for spatially correlated data.”
Although Christensen will not be teaching, he looks forward to recharging his batteries and making new discoveries in statistics during his time at Columbia.
“Sabbaticals are meant to give you an opportunity to retool, get fresh perspective, try to work on some new things,” Christensen said. “It’s an investment in me. It’s the university’s expectation that I’ll come back having started new projects with new knowledge.”
A sabbatical does not necessarily mean a break for the newest ASA Fellow. Christensen is excited to conduct new research in statistics.
“One of the main reasons statistics is so attractive to me is that I’m interested in a lot of different things,” Christensen said. “Statistics allows me to learn about and contribute to different disciplines that are interesting, [like] environmental statistics, climate—these are things that I feel personally interested in and am passionate about.”
After receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in statistics at BYU, Christensen received his PhD at Iowa State University and then worked in multivariate spatial modeling and pollution source modeling. For Christensen, statistics has the power to solve real world problems.
“Climate change and understanding it is really, in large part, a statistical problem,” Christensen said. “With assessing climate change and understanding climate change, statistical modeling is absolutely crucial to the area, and we found that the work we’ve done has been very interesting to funding agencies. They have shown real interest in what statistics has to offer in terms of new perspectives.”
For Christensen, the prestigious distinction of being an ASA Fellow motivates him to discover new ways statistics can solve real world problems.
“The ASA represents a community of people that are using principles like probability and statistics to help people make decisions in the face of uncertainty,” Christensen said. “We live in an uncertain world; the measurements we gather about our uncertain world are themselves tainted by uncertainty, variability, unpredictability. Our job is to find the most rational ways to summarize and make decisions from data. Our job is to design experiments or studies that give us some hope of answering the questions.”