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University of Delaware - Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics

By Dena Hillison March 20, 2019

From the University of Delaware and the city of Newark, Delaware to Rice University and the city of Houston, Texas, partnerships between universities and the cities where they reside can be incredibly important. Through strong university and local government partnerships, advanced analytics provide important information to guide community actions, city processes and regional policies, according to Katherine B. Ensor.

Ensor, the Noah G. Harding Professor of Statistics, director for the Center for Computational Finance and Economic Systems and director of the Kinder Urban Data Platform at Rice University, will be the speaker for this year’s W.L. Gore Lecture Series in Management Science. Registration is open now for the lecture, which will take place on March 27, 2019, starting at 6:00 p.m. in Clayton Hall. The lecture series, sponsored by an endowment from the Gore family, features experts in the application of probability, statistics and experimental design to decision making, including applications in academia, business, government, engineering and medicine.

In a question-and-answer interview, Ensor discussed her upcoming lecture, the demand for data scientists in the job market and advice for women interested in entering the male-dominated field of data science.

Q: What are the key takeaways that you hope those who attend your lecture will learn?

Ensor: Through my lecture I will highlight the value of academic and local government partnerships. Such partnerships are relatively new on the academic front, and may be on the local government front as well. Academia has always contributed [to government] at the national level, but maybe not so much on the local level. There’s a great opportunity for both academia and the local government. It’s not just a benefit to local cities, counties and agencies, but also to the residents of the cities. Further, such partnerships bring value to the education of our students and the research endeavors of universities.

My second key takeaway is that there is this growing infrastructure around data that is available on cities, its residents and really everything about cities. A goal is using this data to support statistical-based policy decisions.

The third take away is the critical importance of sound statistical methods before acting on answers. We can always run some random statistical method and get some answer but that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a good answer.

Q: Are there concepts or lessons that you will present in your talk that may apply to the University of Delaware and the city of Newark?

Ensor: My case study is on the city of Houston, but the concepts are definitely broad and apply everywhere. I just co-developed a workshop at the National Academies where we worked exactly on this topic. It was about data models and simulation for sustainable cities. Multiple countries were represented amongst the attendees, so this is an important theme that is happening everywhere.

Q: Why did you choose to participate in the W.L. Gore Lecture Series in Management Science?

Ensor: The fundamental premise of the Gore Lecture Series is absolutely in line with my core values and the direction of my applied research. I believe strongly that statistics, probability and experimental design all are key components to sound decision making from data.

I have always brought my talents to help with real decisions, and hopefully you want the help that you provide to have as big of an impact as possible. I was very impressed with the premise of the lecture series and the focus of my talk will be on the rich answers the field of statistics can provide to the questions related to urban analytics.

Also, when I looked at the list of previous speakers at the Gore Lecture Series, it’s such an impressive list of statisticians, so I am absolutely honored to be a part of that list moving forward.

Q: Why do you think the demand for data scientists and statisticians is growing and why did you choose to go into this field?

Ensor: We’re living in an age where data is the currency. Properly being able to turn data into knowledge is central to what many companies, agencies and researchers are trying to do and that requires strong data science and statistical skills. That is why they’re in high demand, I would say for statistics and specific data science and programming skills. All three of those help you to figure out, how do you take this massive amount of information that is coming at us every minute and turn it into sound actionable knowledge.

Now to answer why did I go into this field so many years ago, I originally had both a bachelor’s and master’s in mathematics but also had taken a significant amount of computer science and programming courses, so I was cross-trained in that direction. Statistics seemed to fall right in the middle, where you could actually deal with real problems. It really was the opportunity to learn knowledge where I could affect change at a real level. I appreciate academic rigor and publishing papers but the answers that I can come up with in collaboration with others help businesses, engineers, scientists, communities and cities. My contributions to society extend beyond a pure academic focus.  

Q: What has your experience been like as a woman working, and leading, in this male-dominated field? What advice would you give to young women interested in pursuing data science or statistics?

Ensor: I will turn 60 this year, so I have lived through a lot of change in the field. When I joined the university [Rice University], obviously someone hired me so my colleagues were very excited to have me join the university and were always extremely supportive of me and my career. They believed in what I could contribute and accomplish, so I’ve always had that wonderful environment in having great colleagues.

When I joined Rice there were only a few women in science and engineering, maybe four or five. We have all succeeded by staying extremely focused on our work. Doing high quality work on all fronts but also being vocal about the changes that needed to take place for Rice to provide a good work-life-balanced environment. Fortunately, we had an administration at Rice that was open to a conversation, so there have been significant changes. Today, Rice University is regularly ranked as one of the best universities to work.

That’s at the local level, at the national level, the statistics profession took on the fact that there were very few female faculty in statistics departments so long ago. Leaders in the statistics profession helped to establish mentoring programs for all young faculty, not just women, but for all faculty, to help raise the leadership and quality of faculty in statistics programs across the nation. That was something that I benefited from early on and was able to contribute to once I was established.

When I talk to young people, I try to get them to stay focused on the great work that they can do, because then the other issues can kind of go by the wayside. If you’re really good at what you do, then everybody is going to want you in the room. But then, also, think about leadership; think about how you will lead. What kind of leader would you like to be working with? What kind of leader would you like to be in the future? I encourage them to grow in that direction as well.

More on University and City Partnerships

The idea of university and city partnerships is also the focus of discussion at UD for the 20th Anniversary Carol A. Ammon Case Competition. On March 22nd, teams of graduate students will compete to identify solutions for the Newark Partnership, which aims to connect the City of Newark, local businesses and UD. Registration is now open for the final round of the competition, beginning at 1:30 p.m., with the awards ceremony to follow. For those unable to attend the event, it will also be Facebook Live streamed on the Lerner College Facebook page.