Taking a Different Road – Being a Statistics Major

The following is written by Sarah Lotspeich, University of Florida who attended the SAMSI Undergraduate Workshop focusing on Computational Neuroscience.

I declared my Statistics major in the eleventh grade, approximately halfway through my AP Statistics course. As everyone around me pondered medical school and the many types of engineering, I knew that my choice seemed unconventional. Now three years into my undergraduate degree, I have met only a handful of fellow Statistics majors to date. During the third week of October, however, this changed forever as I attended the SAMSI Undergraduate Workshop.

Duke Chapel

Duke Chapel.

It was a gorgeous fall day (a pleasant surprise for me, as my typical “fall” in Gainesville, Florida includes a few fallen leaves and a high temperature in the 80s) in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Budding statistics and mathematics students from across the country gathered to explore computational neuroscience, and to enjoy fantastic food. Always eager for an adventure, I flew in as early as possible the day before the workshop to get maximum exploring time in Durham. Perhaps a bit TOO eager, I walked over eight miles through Downtown Durham and to both edges of Duke University’s gorgeous gothic campus.

Dame's Chicken and Waffles

Excellent chicken and waffles place!

Fret not, however, as I was well fueled by Dame’s Chicken and Waffles and fondue from the Little Dipper. Needless to say the local area surpassed my every expectation and left me excited to wear scarves and learn more about statistics the following day. The mingling began at approximately 7:30am the next morning, as over thirty of my fellow “numbers people” bonded over bagels and oatmeal. I was so excited to hear from people who care as much about significance tests and p-values as I do!

The presentations commenced with an absolute bang as Dr. Ciprian Crainiceanu of Johns Hopkins University immersed us in “Neurohacking”. He outlined the basic principles of converting MRI images from picture to a system of numbers, and by the end of the hour left us with a data set and the necessary code to explore it independently. One of my favorite components of the workshop, actually, was the interactive nature of each presentation with the integration of R or Matlab code.

Guest lecturers introduced many fascinating facets of computational neuroscience, and I especially enjoyed how my knowledge on the subject compounded with each additional lecture. As the workshop progressed I found that I was relating information from one speaker’s presentation back to material I learned even hours previously, and even today I walked away with a nice basis on the topic. It very much feels as if I went from zero to one hundred with this material, and I appreciate the challenges posed to us by the complicated subject matter.

Beyond the presentations, the field trip to the laboratory for psychiatric neuroengineering at Duke University provided a “behind-the-scenes” glimpse at the processes of data collection that create the massive sets we dealt with during lecture. I was also just happy for any excuse to ogle the beautiful campus once more. Each new speaker and opportunity brought about new questions to ask and facts to learn, so I was happy for the constantly changing environment of the workshop from lecture to lecture, or even breaks for the field trip or panel.

students by SAMSI sign

From left to right: Jordan Zeldin, Eion Blanchard, Sarah Lotspeich, Michelle Zamperlini.

The many bus rides provided unexpectedly pleasant opportunities to meet new people, as well, as I was shuffled into new groups with each trip. I thoroughly enjoyed swapping stories about my university – about the weather, everyday dress code, the statistics department – with people from other schools! And I was even lucky enough to give suggestions about things to do and places to eat in Florida, as one of my new friends is planning a trip to the Sunshine State soon. Perhaps the most unexpected bonus to this experience was the people.

This was honestly one of the most incredible groups of students, and upon learning more about each person and their involvement I am absolutely honored to have been selected among them for the 2015 SAMSI Undergraduate Workshop. Though the workshop lasted only two day, the people I met and research I was immersed in will carry through my entire career. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this experience and how strongly I recommend it.

There is a 100% probability that I would love to return to SAMSI sometime in the future.

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