SAMSI Hosts Simons Foundation Public Lecture – “The Public Health Impact of Air Pollution and Climate Change”

Francesca Dominici speaking on April 24 in Chapel Hill

Francesca Dominici speaking on April 24 in Chapel Hill

SAMSI was proud to be chosen as just one of nine places in the world to host a public lecture for the Simons Foundation. The Simons Foundation is sponsoring these lectures as part of “Mathematics for the Planet Earth”. MPE 2013 is a year-long series of events recognizing the role of the mathematics sciences, including statistics, in solving important problems in ecology, the environment, climate change, human health and a variety of other areas that concern the planet on which we live.

On April 24, over 150 gathered to hear Dr. Francesca Dominici talk about the public health impact of air pollution and climate change. The evening started out with a reception for professors and other distinguished guests from the Triangle region.

Richard Smith at the podium

Richard Smith welcoming everyone to the event.

Dr. Richard Smith, director of SAMSI, welcomed everyone and introduced Dr. Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program.

Dr. Linda Birnbaum at the podium

Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Director of NIEHS, introduces Francesca Dominici

Dr. Birnbaum then introduced Francesca Dominici, Professor of Biostatistics in the Harvard School of Public Health, and Associate Dean of Information Technology.

Dominici gave an eloquent speech talking about how she and her colleagues look at various data sets, such as air pollution monitoring sites from the EPA, Medicare claims, data from NOAA, amongst others. She has developed statistical methods for the adjustment of measured and unmeasured confounders, Bayesian hierarchical models, causal inference methods, and missing data methods.

Here are more photos from the evening’s events. More about the speech will be covered in the next issue of SAMSI.Info.

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Dan Solomon talking at reception

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Boston Marathon 2013

The following are remarks from Richard Smith, Director of SAMSI.

Three people closely associated with SAMSI were participating in yesterday’s Boston marathon. One of our postdocs, Dorit Hammerling, completed the race in an outstanding time of 3 hours, 21 minutes. Even faster (by a few seconds) was Francesca Dominici of Harvard University, who will be our Simons Foundation Public Lecturer next week. Francesca’s husband, Giovanni Parmigiani, formerly a professor at Duke, also finished the race in a very good time. Congratulations to all three.

Talk of performances and finish times is, however, overshadowed by the tragic events that unfolded after the race. Dorit, Francesca and Giovanni all finished well in front of the bombs and escaped without harm. We at SAMSI express our gratitude that our friends and colleagues are safe, and our sadness and condolences for those who were not so fortunate.

These events resonated particularly with me as I have run the Boston marathon multiple times, and even provided some statistical input when the organizers revised their qualifying times a couple of years back. The Boston marathon is the greatest of all running events and I am sure it will continue. I am determined to go back and run it again myself.

Richard Smith, Director of SAMSI

Whither Environmental Statistics: where we’ve been, where we are, and some places we need to go

Photo of Walt Piegorsch

Walt Piegorsch

Early in March (of 2013), I had the honor and the pleasure of attending the SAMSI-SAVI Workshop on Environmental Statistics — an area of interest I’ve had for many years.  We convened in SAMSI’s HQ in RTP, NC, just up the street from the EPA (environmental statistics has sooooo many acronyms, doesn’t it?).  It was good timing: the weather was starting to turn nice in North Carolina.  (Well, actually, it was a bit cool for me — I’m in Arizona — but a number of my co-attendees from the frozen north were thrilled at how *warm* it was!  Global climate change at work…)  The workshop only lasted a few days, but I was enlivened by the energy it possessed.  Besides hearing some cutting-edge material presented during the talks, all attendees had a chance to interact and cogitate on the endeavor that is environmental statistics, during coffee breaks, on-site lunches, and a valuable set of breakout sessions one afternoon.  Well-designed workshop!  Indeed, in what was essentially only a two-day period I was able to give a talk on my own area of interest (environmental risk assessment), discuss the issue with many interested co-attendees, and then develop ideas with four attending co-authors for three different follow-up papers.  (Well, hopefully:  we came up with some great outlines — now all we have to do is write the manuscripts!)

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During a talk at the SAMSI-SAVI workshop focusing on environmental statistics

One theme I took from the workshop was, broadly speaking, ‘Whither Environmental Statistics’?  This is just my own opinion, of course, but the sense I got was that (1) we’re further along than we’ve ever been, but (2) there’s lots farther to go.  (Hmmm, maybe that’s why SAMSI held the workshop…)

This theme emerged during a lunch break, when SAMSI director Richard Smith and I had a chance to reflect on a paper we wrote — back in, cough, cough, 1998 — which aimed to (start to) bring the broad diversity of problems in environmental statistics into a cohesive light.  In retrospect, we both agreed that it was a good beginning — environmental science and with it environmental statistics had opened up in the early 1990s and was starting to get some traction by then.  Despite the advances made since, however, there’s still so much more to do (and so little time, sigh…).  Stimulating, but unanswered statistical questions abound in:

  • Climate change (which these days seems to always lead the list)
  • spatio-temporal modeling (which seems to always follow second)
  •  environmental security
  •  third-world challenges, including agricultural advancement, large-scale ecological damage, pesticide exposure (and not just in the third world…)
  •  informatics/”big” data (There’s lots of it. With more on the way.)
  • educating the next generation of environmetricians (and, getting more folks interested in working on these problems)
  • environmental sensing/sensor networks
  • incorporating prior knowledge into these problems via Bayesian methods
  •  new, efficient computer algorithms (for addressing *all* of the above)

to name just a few…  (Add your own favorite here: ____________________________ )

A decidedly mixed list, which seems daunting at first blush.  But, the good news is that along with us ‘seasoned veterans,’ there were many younger minds among the attendees, and we all seemed up to the challenge.  As I said, the energy was infectious, and fun too.  So, let’s get started!  (Indeed, I should probably stop blogging and get to those papers.  My co-authors are waiting…)

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SAMSI-SAVI workshop on environmental statistics.

MECC2013 – Richard Smith’s Notes from Portugal

The following was written by Richard Smith, Director of SAMSI.

Last week I attended “MECC 2013” – the International Conference and Advanced School Planet Earth, Mathematics of Energy and Climate Change, in Portugal, March 21-28, 2013.

This was one of the two Portuguese research conferences linked to MPE2013, Mathematics of the Planet Earth. The main part of the conference took place over two and a half days in the magnificent Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation building in the center of Lisbon (as I discovered while there, the same building is also the concert hall of the Gulbenkian Orchestra – one night I went to a fine performance of the Brahms Requiem). There were fourteen keynote speakers as well as “thematic sessions” covering numerous aspects of mathematics, statistics and economics associated with climate change, renewable energy and related themes. I was one of the keynote speakers, and talked about recent work on climate extremes. Another keynote speaker with SAMSI connections was Chris Jones, of the UNC Math department and former Associate Director of SAMSI. Chris gave his talk by video link from Chapel Hill, which worked fine for most of his talk, though the communication was all one way: we could hear Chris just fine, but he could not hear us. Chris later commented to me that he found this very strange, though the talk was excellent. Other speakers covered topics such as solar energy and the economics of sustainability.

While I was there, they also asked me (along with several of the other visitors) to give some lectures at the University of Lisbon. So on the last day of my visit, I spoke for three hours to an audience that was mostly from the Statistics department of the University. I have had long connections with the Portuguese statistics community dating back to the first international conference on extreme value theory, which took place in Portugal in 1983. It was good to meet up with several old friends.

Richard Smith