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The Beauty of Statistics

Once in a while, at informal gatherings, Francisco Samaniego (pictured left) notices an unmistakable cringe in people's faces when they learn that he is a statistician. But he wouldn't change his career for anything.

For more than three decades, Samaniego has been doing his dream job as a statistics professor at the University of California-Davis (UCD). He has inspired several students to take on statistics careers, and he hopes there will be more, especially from underrepresented minority groups. His plan is to simply keep doing what he has been: "being the best that I can be."

A Penchant for Math

A Mexican-American, Samaniego was born in the U.S., but he maintains a strong connection with his Mexican roots. In elementary school, he wasn't the studious type, but a seventh-grade teacher convinced him that he had great academic potential. After this encouragement, he began doing well in school. "My image changed," he recalls, "from 'goof off' to the 'guy who probably knew the answer.'"

Samaniego fell in love with math after taking a calculus course during his freshman year of college, and by the time he graduated from Loyola University in 1966 with a B.S. in mathematics, he had become interested in statistics. "It had all the beauty and satisfaction of pure mathematics, but also had many real and important applications," he says. "It seemed to me like a subject worth mastering."

Samaniego's emerging excitement about statistics and encouragement from professors at Loyola motivated him to pursue an M.S. in mathematics, so he attended Ohio State University and completed the program in a year. Samaniego originally planned to get a job afterwards, even trying out an actuary position for a summer, but his desire to become a college professor won out. So he entered the University of California-Los Angeles, and earned his Ph.D. in 1971. After finishing a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, he joined the faculty at UCD and has been there ever since.

Loving His Job

According to Samaniego, the best thing about being a professor is the variety of work: research, teaching, and numerous administrative and professional commitments. "It is a very rich life altogether," he says.

But it is his research that best satisfies his thirst for knowledge. Samaniego has made significant contributions in reliability theory, which combines the knowledge of statistics and engineering to study the performance of manufactured systems, including everything from radios to airplanes. Another research project fueled an ongoing debate about which statistical method is better for examining experimental data: Bayesian statistics, which incorporates early intuition, or the classical approach, which only takes a study's collected data into account.

Moreover, he has participated in projects from a variety of fields such as engineering, education, public health, and genetics. People in these fields have quantitative problems that pose statistical questions, and he often gets invited to find solutions.

Samaniego's teaching skills are just as keen as his research capabilities. To help students who dread taking statistics, Samaniego developed his own approach, inspired partly by the teaching styles of his former mentors. Samaniego spends time helping students understand simple concepts and gradually moves on to more complex questions. He believes that for students to reach their full potential, they should be challenged academically, but the level of instruction should not exceed the level they are ready for. He avoids presenting a dry collection of formulas and methods. "Our job as professors is to make it come alive. You try and do that by connecting with different types of applications and emphasizing the fun and interesting parts of the field," he says.

Samaniego's teaching philosophies have proved effective in his class; he has been getting rave reviews as a teacher. In 2002 he was one of four professors to get UCD's Academic Senate's Distinguished Teaching Award. And last year UCD continued to heap praise with its most prominent award, the $30,000 UCD Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement.

Aside from teaching and doing research, Samaniego has accepted prominent administrative positions at UCD: as Director of UCD's Statistical Laboratory, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs, and Director of the Teaching Resources Center. He is currently active in several professional societies and serves as editor for the "Theory and Methods" section of the Journal of the American Statistical Association, a top statistics journal.

A Catalyst for Change

Despite his commitments, Samaniego is always up for more challenges and is particularly interested in increasing diversity in the field of statistics. "It's not that often that you see a minority scientist in mathematical sciences," he explains. Samaniego is eager to guide anyone interested in studying statistics, especially those who haven't had many educational opportunities. Cheryl Jones is an example of how he helps people of color enter math careers.

Jones wasn't sure what she wanted to study when she started Samaniego's introduction to statistics class, a required course for many UCD majors. But Samaniego recognized her talents in math, and she soon realized she enjoyed mathematical challenges. He suggested ways for her to enhance her math skills through courses and research. Jones, who is African American, became the first in her family to finish college and obtain graduate degrees--a master's degree from the University of Washington in Seattle and her doctorate from Harvard University--both in biostatistics. She currently works as a statistician for Genentech, Inc., a biotech company in San Francisco, California.

Jones' success is just one example of Samaniego's efforts to diversify his field. Considering the impact he has made, through teaching and research, he is set to inspire minorities using him as the example. Though he sees his professional accomplishments as his "ultimate contribution," he wouldn't mind it if others were to follow his example. "If a few minority students in the sciences find some motivation or inspiration from my career, whether or not they met me, knew me, or directly benefited from anything I've done, I would be very pleased and honored by that."

Funding Available for Minority Students in Biostatistics

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a new funding program to help increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities in biostatistics and related fields. But the deadline for applications is 28 March 2005. See the CDC announcement for details.

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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