VA Tech Graduate Student uses Inverse Problems Workshop to Influence Personal Research


Contributed by: Joseph Tanner Slagel, Graduate Student, Dept. of Mathematics, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University

As a graduate student at Virginia Tech, my research interests are in large-scale numerical linear algebra. In particular, I have recently been studying stochastic approximation methods for solving very large least square problems.  These are least square problems where the data size is terabytes (or even petabytes!) in size, and thus cannot fit in a computer CPU’s memory all at once.

I looked at the Statistical Inverse Problems Workshop at the Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute (SAMSI) as an excellent opportunity to learn about emerging topics and techniques that I could apply to my own personal research.

I attended the Statistical Inverse Problems Workshop from January 26-27, 2017. The friendly and open atmosphere of the SAMSI workshop made it easy for me to make new connections and to discuss topics related to my research. The experience gave me the opportunity to work with a dynamic range of professionals (graduate students, postdocs and junior/senior level faculty), which helped me gain perspective from mathematicians at various stages of their career.

“Attending this SAMSI workshop was a great way for me to connect with other researchers whose interests overlap with my own.”

A distinguishing feature of the workshop was that, in addition to plenary and research talks, there was a lot of time for research discussions and collaborations on current projects – small groups were encouraged to find an open room and work for multiple hours on emerging research questions.

The talks at the workshop gave me an opportunity to learn about important problems in Bayesian inverse problems. Despite the small group, I heard a range of talks that provided an overview of open problems in the field, expounded on main computational and algorithm challenges, and described lots of cool real-life applications. The most beneficial part of the workshop for me was getting to speak to others about my research. I received a lot of helpful input and pointers to resources that have helped me see where my work fits into the larger statistical inversion community.


Ahmed Attia (instructing), a Postdoctoral Fellow at SAMSI, gives a research lecture at the Statistical Inverse Problems Workshop

Attending this SAMSI workshop was a great way for me to connect with other researchers whose interests overlap with my own. I look forward to returning to SAMSI in the future for more collaborations and discussions!

NOTE: To see what subjects were presented at this workshop visit the SAMSI website at:


UT Mathematician Discusses Advances & Future of Super-computing

Jack Dongarra

Jack Dongarra, Director of the Center for Information Technology Research and Innovative Computing Laboratory – University of Tennessee (photo courtesy of University of Tennessee)

The Workshop on the Interface of Statistics and Optimization (WISO) at Duke University’s Penn Pavilion wrapped up recently. After we said good bye to all of our participants, I was reminded of an interesting talk given by one of the twelve insightful speakers. The speaker in question was Jack Dongarra.

Jack is the Director of the Center for Information Technology Research and Innovative Computing Laboratory, from the University of Tennessee. He lectured on: “The Road to Exascale and Legacy Software for Dense Linear Algebra (or what we have been doing for the last 43 years).” Jack’s talk at WISO could be appreciated even by those who are not specialists in the esoteric matters of statistics and optimization. True to the title, Jack has been designing high-performance software for over 40 years. His pioneering work has been honored with many awards, including membership in the US National Academy of Engineering.

Twice a year, Jack co-publishes a benchmark of the 500 most powerful supercomputers in the world. The current number one, as of November 2016, is the Sunway TaihuLight machine in Wuxi, China. Built from over 10 million processors, it can execute more than 1016 operations in a single second. The Titan Cray XK7 at Oak Ridge National Lab, located in Oak Ridge, TN, is number three.


The Sunway TaihuLight machine (above) is the number one super computer in the world. Its more than 10 million processors make it possible to execute millions operations in a single second!

For the many young people in the audience, Jack started his talk with a history of how hardware and software have developed over the years, and how he himself got into the business of benchmarking. A few photos from the 1970’s, featuring Jack and his colleagues in bell bottoms and side burns, proudly posing on a Ford Pinto with the license plate “Linpack” (after their groundbreaking public-domain software package) were well received.

Dongarra Friends

– Jack Dongarra and fellow software developers pose with his trusty Ford Pinto in the 1970’s identified with the license plate “LINPACK.” LINPACK was the group’s groundbreaking public-domain software package.

Jack’s advice for how to build good software: Keep the processors busy with arithmetic, make sure they coordinate their work schedules efficiently rather than sitting idle waiting for results from other processors.

Jack ended with a list of the many challenges for software design, including:

  • Efficiency (speed matters),
  • Scalability (keep up the efficiency, even in the face of growing work),
  • Reliability (with 10 million processors in use, some are bound to fail)
  • Portability (the particular hardware platform should not matter).

Jack Dongarra was one of many interesting speakers at the WISO. If you are interested in seeing the other presentations from the 3-day event, visit the WISO Video Page.


ASTRO Workshop Brings Researchers together to Discuss Exoplanet Exploration


Contributed by: Ian Czekala, Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC), Postdoctoral Fellow, Stanford University

My research focuses on understanding young stars and their protoplanetary disks during the planet formation epoch. For a number of reasons, I was particularly excited about attending the Statistical and Applied Mathematics Institute (SAMSI) Hierarchical Bayesian Modeling of Exoplanet Populations, October 17-28. The main reason was that my previous experiences at SAMSI have always been so positive. For example, I first learned about many of the topics and techniques that I use on a regular basis in my research through a similar SAMSI workshop in 2013. Three years later, I was again eager to learn new analysis methods from the statistical expertise gathered at SAMSI. Although two weeks may seem like a long time for a workshop, I knew that the close-knit environment would foster collaboration, catalyze many new projects, and make the conference pass by way too quickly. The following is a brief account of the conference with highlights of aspects that I found particularly interesting, by no way is this a complete or unbiased survey of all that transpired!

First, allow me to explain the context for our workshop. In August, 80 researchers from the fields of exoplanets, gravitational waves, and statistics converged upon Research Triangle Park to kick off the year-long SAMSI program on Statistical, Mathematical and Computational Methods for Astronomy. At the Opening Workshop for this program, we explored ideas and statistical techniques common to these fields and brainstormed interesting projects to work on over the next year. We splintered into five “working groups,” each focused on a particular topic or technique. I joined Working Group IV – Astrophysical Populations, which was focused on hierarchical Bayesian inference of exoplanet populations. Each working group has maintained momentum through weekly teleconferences, and most groups will have a workshop at SAMSI at some point during the academic year. The year-long program will be capped by a “transition” workshop in May 2017.

Angie Wolfgang, a National Science Foundation Fellow at Penn State University and Eric Ford, a professor, also at Penn State, were the main organizers of the Astrophysical Populations workshop. We had about 20 participants split equally between astrophysics and statistics. Our first morning was spent discussing our research interests and what we hoped to accomplish over the next two weeks. Two major groups evolved from this discussion. The first was centered on exploring the mass-radius relationship of exoplanets from photometric transit and radial velocity datasets. The second was focused on spectroscopic techniques to characterize stars and measure their radial velocity. Although our workshop was nominally about exoplanets, it turns out that a proper understanding of stars is fundamental to detecting and understanding the exoplanets that orbit them.

Understanding the Planet Mass-Radius Relationship…
In the past decade, astronomers have transitioned from knowing of the existence of only a handful of exoplanets to discovering a vast collection of several thousand. Most planets have been discovered by the Kepler Mission, which finds planets by measuring the dip in light as a planet transits its host star. It is most informative about a planet’s radius. For a select subset of these planets, precise radial velocity monitoring yields the masses of the planets as well. Because we are necessarily operating at the detection limit of our telescopes when studying small planets, it is very important to utilize proper statistical analysis lest our interpretation be biased.  The fundamental unknown that links a planet’s mass and radius is the planets composition, and so with a proper statistical framework we might hope to infer how planet composition varies amongst the thousands of known exoplanets, telling us something deep about the planet formation process in general.


Leslie Rogers, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, speaks about planet composition distribution.

Angie Wolfgang, Bo Ning, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Statistics at N.C. State University, and Sujit Ghosh, SAMSI Deputy Director, explored using Bernstein Polynomials to model the planet mass-radius relationship non-parametrically, and showed promising results that included measurement uncertainties. Leslie Rogers, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, talked about the planet composition distribution. In addition, she also discussed how to link physically motivated models of planet composition to data and determine if this composition changes as a function of planet formation mechanism. Kaisey Mandel, a Postdoctroal Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, worked on understanding selection effects as they apply to exoplanet surveys. This was his focus since he is also interested in selection effects of Type Ia supernovae surveys.

A sizable group of people worked on translating hierarchical sampling code into the new language STAN. In particular, Megan Shabram, a Postdoctoral Fellow with NASA’s Kepler Mission and Joe Catanzarite, a SOC Scientific Programmer with NASA’s Kepler team, produced an open-source Jupyter notebook that implemented planet occurrence rate calculations in PySTAN.

Central to many of our problems discussed at this workshop was the topic of “emulation” or “uncertainty quantification,” which is actually the primary topic of Working Group I – Uncertainty Quantification and Astrophysical Emulation. Bekki Dawson, an Assistant Professor in the Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and Assistant Professor, Anirban Mondal of the Mathematics, Applies Mathematics and Statistics Department at Case Western Reserve University, worked on developing astrophysical emulators for planet formation models, so that more accurate (and computationally expensive) models could be used in hierarchical Bayesian inference to understand the formation of super-Earths and mini-Neptunes. Related to this problem, Jessi Cisewski, Assistant Professor in Yale’s Department of Statistics, made several informative presentations on Approximate Bayesian Computing (ABC) to solve inference problems where it is difficult to write down a likelihood function.


David Stenning, one of two SAMSI Postdoctoral fellows at the workshop, presented talks on techniques using astrostatistics to improve exoplanet analysis.

Hierarchical Spectroscopic Inference with Time Series Stellar Spectroscopy…
A large group of astronomers and statisticians worked on techniques to improve radial velocity precision, with the hopes of finding planets with the mass of earth and below. Eric Ford, Jessi Cisewski, David Stenning and David Jones, Postdoctoral Fellows at SAMSI, Robert Wolpert, a Professor of Statistical Science and the Environment at Duke Univesity; Tom Loredo, a Senior Research Associate in Astronomy at Cornell; Ben Montet, a Postdoctoral Researcher from the University of Chicago and I worked on radial velocity fitting using mock spectral datasets with known statistical characteristics. These datasets are comprised of real stellar spectra of the sun to which have been added planets (the signal of interest) and star spots (a confounding signal). We examined interesting principal component analysis with the hope of isolating the orbiting planet from stellar activity. During this period, we were also treated to two presentations by the SAMSI postdocs David Stenning and David Jones about using Gaussian processes to correlate stellar activity indicators with radial velocity jitter and using diffusion mapping to understand stellar variability.

By the end of the workshop, we were all knee-deep in immersive projects that we had started just 10 days prior – we were reluctant to leave!  The collaborative working environment, with daily updates of what we had accomplished certainly fueled an exciting work schedule, since everyone was motivated to complete new ideas to share with the group. By the end of the workshop, several of us remarked that in fact two weeks was not a long enough period for us to get anything done – we were all so dedicated to the research, we wanted to stay! To cap it all off, we were treated to a tasty “special presentation” by Tom Loredo, who shared with us how chocolate is made.

These researchers will collaborate over the next several months on this continued analysis of exoplanet discovery.


Workshop participants were treated to a chocolate tasting from Tom Loredo, a Senior Research Associate in Astronomy at Cornell. Loredo is a hobbyist chocolatier and candymaker and his confections were enjoyed by the group.

E&O Undergraduate Astrostatistics Workshop: A Stellar Learning Experience


Contributed by: Rachel Matheson, Mathematics Undergraduate Student, Vassar College – Poughkeepsie, NY

As a math major at a liberal arts school, choosing my classes for the next semester always feels like a lot is at stake. I want to take physics, neuroscience, astronomy and biology, but I also want to take social sciences and humanities. Dipping in to the Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute’s (SAMSI) Undergraduate Workshops gives me a chance to experience the different flavors of applied math and statistics without the commitment of a class. I was therefore extremely delighted to be invited to come back to SAMSI this October for a two-day undergraduate workshop focused on Statistical, Mathematical and Computational Methods for Astronomy (ASTRO).

SAMSI Workshops – Full of Information…


Jessi Cisewski, an Assistant Professor in Yale University’s Department of Statistics, conducts a lecture on Approximate Bayesian Computation in Astrostatistics. This talk was one of several performed during the workshop.

Though the workshop was brief, it was packed with interesting lectures and hands-on activities. After a yummy breakfast at the hotel, we shuttled off to SAMSI’s campus and were greeted by SAMSI Deputy Director, Sujit Ghosh, who delivered his opening remarks to our group. From there, we quickly transitioned into a lecture from Jessi Cisewski, an Assistant Professor in Yale University’s Department of Statistics, on Approximate Bayesian Computation in Astrostatistics. The lecture was very enjoyable and informative – it served as a reflection and an extension of what I have been learning in my probability class, applied to the stellar initial mass function.  Bekki Dawson, an Assistant Professor from Penn State University’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, then dazzled my mind with stellar facts during her lecture titled Time Domain Challenges for Exoplanets. I was surprised to learn that this is an area where technology is good and up-to-date but we still don’t have the statistical methods to interpret noise in the data properly in order to detect exoplanets similar to Earth.

“SAMSI serves largely as a space for me to feel motivated about my pursuit of applied math and connect with people who feel just as excited as I do about it.”

After a short break, we delved back in to a tutorial on R led by SAMSI Post-Doctorate fellows David Jones, David Stenning and Hyungsuk Tak. This was a helpful overview to lead up to the intensive, hands-on workshop of modeling Gaussian processes. Line-by-line comments in the R code kept me from feeling lost as the lecture sped on, deep into the mathematics and emulator needed in order to make this model run. I could easily go back and gain understanding as post-doctorate fellows stood throughout the room ready to help at an arm’s wave. It felt like a really positive learning environment, despite the high speed at which the material was presented.


On Day 2 of the Undergraduate Workshop, students got to visit the Morehead Planetarium on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. The students enjoyed two presentations on the universe and the existence of blackholes.

Opportunities and Guidance from those who have done it…

One of my favorite aspects of coming to SAMSI is being able to talk to the post-doctorate fellows, SAMSI faculty, and my peers, about anything from career path choices to, quite literally, the stars in the sky. The panel on career opportunities led by some of the graduate fellows was a wealth of information for nervous undergraduates to seek advice from those who have “made it,” as well as to start conversations to continue later on. I ended up eating dinner with two post-doctorate fellows, who advised me on everything from which classes to take to not worrying too much.

Leaving with a new sense of purpose…

After a visit to the Morehead Planetarium, I felt sad to be leaving almost as quickly as it began. It is always so reassuring to talk to people who are pursuing what I am interested in, not to mention truly inspiring and exciting. SAMSI serves largely as a space for me to feel motivated about my pursuit of applied math and connect with people who feel just as excited as I do about it. It forges what may be a 2-day community, but that community gets to live on through email and LinkedIn. I am too glad to have had the opportunity to experience SAMSI as a community and as a learning space – it excels at being both!

To see more about what happened at this workshop, visit: To see past and upcoming workshops in our ASTRO Program, visit:


Students from the Undergraduate Workshop pose for a picture at the working sun dial located at the Morehead Planetarium on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. The students visited the planetarium as part of their workshop activities. The 2-day undergraduate workshop was part of the Education and Outreach for SAMSI’s Program on Statistical, Mathematical and Computational Methods for Astronomy (ASTRO).

DPDA Workshop: Reinforcing the Importance of Statistics and Applied Mathematics in Distributed Computing


Contributed by: Alexander Terenin, Statistics and Applied Mathematics PhD student, University of California – Santa Cruz

I am a PhD student in Statistics and Applied Mathematics at the University of California – Santa Cruz (UCSC). My research focuses on Bayesian statistics – specifically, Markov Chain Monte Carlo methods at scale in parallel and distributed environments for big data applications. I had heard about the workshop from a fellow graduate student in my department, and attending was a very natural choice given my area of research.

The Workshop…
On September 20 – 23, I had the privilege of attending a 4-day Workshop on Distributed and Parallel Data Analysis (DPDA) hosted by Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute (SAMSI) at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. I would like to take this time to reflect on my observations after attending the workshop in this piece.

Upon arrival, the workshop proceeded as workshops usually do: various speakers gave talks on different topics, intertwined with breaks that give participants the opportunity to take a moment to think about the talks, as well as time to talk to one another about ideas. I was intrigued to see that the DPDA workshop had no parallel sessions – a format I much prefer because it brings people together that may otherwise never end up in the same room.


Participants at the 2016 DPDA Workshop network during one of the scheduled times of the series. Participants used these opportunities to network and collaborate on ideas.

Informative and Engaging Discussions…
A number of these talks and discussions stood out to me – I’ll highlight three of them, in order of occurrence.

Wotao Yin, a faculty from UCLA’s Mathematics Department, gave a talk on “Asynchronous Parallel Coordinate Update Algorithms.” In this talk, he described a particular class of parallel versions of optimization algorithms – asynchronous iterative algorithms.

To understand what these are, let’s first back up and speak for a moment on iterative algorithms: these are algorithms where some sequence of steps is repeated until convergence. To take the next step, we need to have completed the previous one – so how can iterative algorithms be parallelized? It turns out, one way to do so is to make them asynchronous. For example, a set of workers perform a set of iterative steps as fast as they can, talking to each other as much as possible, with no control over what order these steps occur in. So then the question is asked, can such processes converge? Sometimes this is possible. If the algorithm’s state space forms a box, and if individual steps shrink the box, then the algorithm will converge even if performed asynchronously. After recalling these results, Prof.Yin illustrated that certain coordinate ascent algorithms satisfy these conditions. This talk was very interesting for me to listen to as I have written a paper about the asynchronous variant of Gibbs Sampling, an algorithm for Bayesian computation, the analysis of which is complicated but involves the same conditions. Seeing the same ideas used in a different context was very interesting and got me to think about similarities and differences with my own work.

Eric Xing, a faculty from Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science Department, gave a talk on “Strategies and Principles for Distributed Machine Learning.” His lecture focused on a description of a variety of computational software environments used in big data setting, and how different implementation choices can yield vastly different levels of performance. This topic was interesting, because it bridged the theory of statistical computation with software engineering considerations that end up having substantially more implications for performance than might be expected. For example, in a distributed setting, having a master node that manages and coordinates workers can yield different performance characteristics than a peer-to-peer model where all of the workers talk to each other – even if the exact same algorithm is used in both cases. Similar lines of thought have been highly relevant in my own work as well. Having written papers on performing Markov Chain Monte Carlo algorithms in two different parallel settings – compute clusters and graphics cards – I have learned that software engineering considerations are an inherent part of parallel computing and it is important to study them.

I also found the discussion panel toward the end of the workshop to be particularly memorable. My PhD Advisor at UCSC, David Draper, was on the panel, along with a number of distinguished faculty members from several universities – moderated by Sujit Ghosh, Deputy Director of SAMSI. Draper made the point that for the field of statistical computation to advance, “statisticians need to become better computer scientists, and computer scientists need to become better statisticians.” This point resonated with me because as a student in a graduate program in statistics, we are largely not taught anything about high performance computing, whether in traditional supercomputer or Silicon Valley style hardware environments. I however, have been fortunate that I have had the privilege of working in both settings through an academic collaboration with Shawfeng Dong, an astrophysicist at UCSC, and my time at eBay, Inc. – many statisticians have not had this comparable opportunity.

This makes statistical high performance computing a specialty area, which in my view causes two discipline-wide consequences: (1) it’s easy for non-specialists to write code and design algorithms that scale poorly, and (2) the typical software stack that statisticians are taught and use in practice is filled with out-of-date tools and programmatic concepts that make coding and debugging unnecessarily difficult.

It was very interesting to hear similar ideas brought up and discussed as part of the panel. The experience was vital because the panel emphasized the implications on statistical education, a topic I do not have many opinions about, because I am still a student. The discussion panel gave me the opportunity to think about our field as statisticians and applied mathematicians and where our discipline is headed.  This new information and insight is important for a young person, such as myself, because it tells me what to study and spend my time on throughout my graduate program.

Participants at the 2016 DPDA Workshop discuss various topics on distributed computing during the Workshop Reception and Poster session.

Participants at the 2016 DPDA Workshop discuss various topics on distributed computing during the Workshop Reception and Poster session.

“Statisticians need to become better computer scientists, and computer scientists need to become better statisticians.”

A Good Experience Overall…
Overall, I found the workshop highly memorable. The points highlighted merely scratched the surface of topics I wanted to discuss. An honorable mention was the lecture by Han Liu, a faculty at the Statistical Machine Learning Lab at Princeton University. Liu’s talk was called “Blessing of Massive Scale” and he demonstrated that some problems become much easier when they are big. Faming Liang, a faculty at the University of Florida’s Department of Biostatistics, spoke about “Bayesian Neural Networks for High Dimensional Variable Selection.” I found  Liang’s treatment of Bayesian asymptotics interesting.

Finally, Samuel Franklin’s, of 360i: Digital Marketing Agency, presented a talk called “HDPA Growth Constraints in Digital Marketing.” The subject was surprisingly interesting for a talk that involved no mathematics. He called upon all of us in the room, the next generation of statisticians, engineers and applied mathematicians to be champions for increased education on high performance computing foreshadowed some of what was later said in the panel.

Data Science at 360i, lectures on the importance high speed computing as a resource for digital marketing strategies.

Samuel Franklin, Vice President of Data Science at 360i, lectures on the importance of high speed computing as a resource for digital marketing strategies.

I was thankful that I had the opportunity to attend and listen to all of the wonderful perspectives that were offered on our field of study, as well as the opportunity to try North Carolina BBQ during one of the evenings. I would also like to thank SAMSI for compiling and sharing the approved lectures from this event online. For more information about the DPDA Workshop or simply to review what was presented, visit:

SAMSI Undergraduate Workshop inspires Student Growth


 Contributed by: Joanna Itzel Navarro, Statistics Undergraduate, University of California – Los Angeles

From May 22-26, 2016, I had the privilege of participating in the SAMSI (Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute) Interdisciplinary Workshop for Undergraduate Students.

In my quest for statistical research, I learned about SAMSI after coming across a paper on Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) methods written by the Deputy Director of SAMSI, Sujit K. Ghosh.  A statistics alumnus from UCLA had previously mentioned SAMSI to me before, so when I came across Dr. Ghosh’s paper, I was compelled to find out more about this program he and Dr. Ghosh endorsed.  A few months later, I found myself at SAMSI learning about random walks and the Metropolis-Hastings algorithm from Dr. Ghosh himself.

The SAMSI Experience…
The day after arriving in North Carolina, the workshop commenced with a presentation by the Director of SAMSI, Dr. Richard Smith, on statistical reasoning in public and the complexity of small and large data sets. Throughout this first day of the workshop, we heard more data talks from different sources in order to investigate a variety of questions related to several exciting and emerging areas of research.  The research projects available to us ranged from the overall complex dynamic behavior of the brain and nervous system to measuring climate change through dolphin migration patterns. After the talks ended, the other students and I broke up into groups of 5-9 and were assigned to the research project we selected.  Before the first day was over, we got to know our group members and learned of all the different majors we were.  This miscellany of majors initially struck us as inexpedient, but throughout the week, we learned that bringing together minds from different backgrounds, qualifications, and experiences is key to effective problem-solving.

“When we found ourselves stumped, all it took was one group member to pose a provoking question or novel information to furnish the impetus that moved us forward.”

Reinforcing Effective Foundations in Statistics…
The following days entailed a wealth of R, MATLAB, presentations on giving effective presentations, and panels on graduate school programs and graduate school life. Additionally, we toured neighboring research institutions in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park and reconnoitered the campus NC State University.

Research Group Projects…
While our morning and afternoon activities varied, our evenings remained dutifully allotted for our research projects and group work.  After an eventful day, we came back every evening to find ourselves huddled around desks and ripe for our research projects.


– Joanna Itzel Navarro presents findings on her Research Group’s Project at SAMSI Interdisciplinary Workshop for Undergraduate Students, May 22-26, 2016.                               (photo provided by Navarro)

My research group was under the guidance of Duke’s newest, congenial statistics postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Adam Jaeger, and our research examined how various environmental factors predict behaviors of bottlenose dolphins in the Northern North Carolina Estuarine System (NNCES) stock in Roanoke Sound, North Carolina.  Furthermore, our research sought to discover how water temperature relates to the presence of dolphins and whether a change in the frequency of dolphins could be indicative of climate change.

Learning Through Diverse Perspectives…
The amalgam of majors in our group was certainly a recipe for a wide range of questions and approaches, and we noticed this especially in the beginning.  This led us to adopt a multidisciplinary approach, and by the end of the program, we had molded ourselves into your quintessential, diverse research team. When we found ourselves stumped, all it took was one group member to pose a provoking question or novel information to furnish the impetus that moved us forward.  We were all challenged to work out our differences and use our diversions as opportunities; we learned to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching a consensus would take effort and strong reasoning.

The End…


– Joanna Itzel Navarro listens to one of many lectures presented at SAMSI Interdisciplinary Workshop for Undergraduate Students, May 22-26, 2016. (photo provided by Navarro)

On the last day of the workshop, every group presented their research findings.  The presentations were interactive and the questions were provoking.  After a series of group photos and goodbyes, we all parted our separate ways. This was not the end of things for us though. Currently, many of us remain connected.  Whether through our Facebook group we’re all part of or through email, we continuously share with each other and let each other know about other opportunities.

Participating in this interdisciplinary workshop has highlighted the role of mathematical sciences, particularly statistics, in solving a gamut of important problems.  Through the tours, presentations, group research, and interacting with erudite people from academia and industry, this workshop has imparted an educational experience that I cannot image receiving elsewhere. This was an indelible experience and a worthwhile way to spend my degrees of freedom.


– Group photo of students and mentors at the SAMSI Interdisciplinary Workshop for Undergraduate Students, May 22-26, 2016. (photo provided by Navarro)

SAMSI/Harvard Workshop on Environmental Health Data: A Lasting Impression – 9 Months in the Making

Contributed by Krista Coleman, MSM; Associate Director of Research Strategy and Development, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

I facilitated the ‘Introductions’ on the morning of Day 1 of the Statistical Methods and Analysis of Environmental Health Data in Mumbai, India, and I can’t express how satisfying it was to see nine months of planning come to life. Once everyone provided their brief introduction including their name, professional title, institution, and area of research interest, I recall saying, “Well, it sounds like we’ve gathered the right group of researchers together!” That statement held true throughout the week as I watched existing colleagues reconnect, new collaborations form, and treasured friendships develop – all because we came together around the topic of India’s pressing public health challenges related to indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Krista Coleman_SAMSI

Dr. Francesca Dominici, Professor of Biostatistics and Senior Associate Dean of Research at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health speaking at the workshop.

This workshop was the product of a identifying a unique opportunity, the pooling of ideas and resources, strategic planning and dedication from the organizers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, SAMSI, and ISI-Kolkata. An incredible amount of care an attention went into the identification and selection of workshop participants – each of us leveraged the networks of our colleagues in the U.S. and India to recommend participants that would get the most out of their investment in the week, while also contributing to the benefit of others. Once we had a tentative roster, we worked with precision to create a program and recruit speakers that would meet the needs of all of those in attendance and seed collaborations. We were able to leverage the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s India Research Center in Mumbai and with an incredible amount of communication across time zones, plan and confirm all of the logistical arrangements for the workshop. Having never planned a workshop, let alone an international event, it was quite an experience to invest so much of myself in watching the seed of an idea be nurtured along the way and blossom into a wildly successful effort!

Touring Mumbai_SAMSI

Workshop attendees touring Mumbai.

In my role at the Harvard Chan School, I rarely get to so closely observe learning and research in action. It was such a gift to observe the lectures – watching researchers (spanning from students to professors) engage and learn from each other. I was amazed by how quickly the working groups began their collaborative efforts and was in awe of how much they were able to accomplish in just a few days – again, honoring the fact that we were all in the right place at the right time.

Dr. Prabhakaran Dorairaj_SAMSI

Dr. Prabhakaran Dorairaj of Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) speaking at the workshop.

It’s my nature to set high expectations for projects I engage in, and having never done this before, I wanted it to be perfect. I can say with great confidence based on my own experience and from the feedback we received, that we exceeded our expectations in Mumbai. I’m deeply grateful for all of the contributions from the organizers, speakers, and participants. This wouldn’t have been a success without the engagement from all of those who attended. Thank you all for being part of such an incredibly rewarding experience!

Teamwork and Collegiality Key to Success of the SAMSI-SAVI Workshop

The following was written by Amrutasri Nori-Sarma, from Yale University.

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” – Henry Ford

As a PhD candidate at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental studies, I spend much of my year designing and implementing my research projects in some of the most sensitive communities in urban India. Through the course of my fieldwork and data collection, I have learned to rely on the expertise of local community members if I want to achieve my research goals. These relationships can take a significant amount of time to build and nurture to a fruitful collaboration stage, which is why I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the teamwork and collegiality came together in the first week of June, at the SAMSI-SAVI workshop in Mumbai.

Against the backdrop of the sweltering Mumbai summer, the workshop on Statistical Methods and Analysis of Environmental Health Data was an oasis in more ways than one. Leading participants from Indian and U.S. institutions came together for this inaugural workshop at the brand new Harvard centre in Mumbai, to discuss the cutting edge methods in statistical analysis of environmental health data.


Dr. Kalpana Balakrishnan speaking at the workshop.

For me, the best part about the workshop was the balance between methods-based talks (from Prof. Francesca Dominici and Prof. Donna Spiegelman and my own adviser Prof. Michelle Bell, among others) and summaries of the ongoing work in India (from Prof. Kalpana Balakrishnan, senior scientists in a variety of departments at the Public Health Foundation of India, and Dr. Mohan Thanikachalam). The interspersed talks provided a well-rounded picture of the ongoing work in India, as well as the critical research gaps that remain to be filled. This environment was further enhanced by the working group discussions around specific data sets that have been collected by our colleagues in India, which they shared with the groups for discussion and analysis.

group photo at the SAMSI-SAVI workshop

The group at dinner.

Midway through the workshop, attendees were invited by Dr. Swati Piramal to join her for a conference dinner at the Piramal tower. The collaborative discussions continued in the ballroom over dinner and drinks, surrounded by Dr. Piramal’s beautiful art collection. I was able to use this dinner to catch up with my research collaborator Dr. Prakash Gupta, head of the Healis-Seksaria Institute, who is one of the pioneering health data scientists in India working with a cohort that he has been building for 20+ years. I’m excited about the possibility of other similar Indo-US collaborations, which might have their origins at this workshop…

I’ll be returning to India in September to continue my research, and will look forward to the opportunity to reconnect with other workshop participants during my trip!

What Does It Mean to be a Woman in Mathematics?

The following blog post was written by Jessica Matthews, Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites (CICS-NC).

room full of women watching presentation

Workshop for Women in Mathematics held April 6-8, 2016.

When offered the invitation to speak at SAMSI’s Opportunities Workshop for Women in Math Sciences, I gladly accepted. When it came time to actually prepare the presentation, I realized that I had never attended, let alone presented, at this type of workshop ever before. I am well versed in putting together a scientific presentation, but this was different. So I myself was faced with the opportunity to consider what it meant to be a woman in mathematics. I had the opening talk time slot, which inherently carries with it the pressure of setting the tone for the entire event. I chose to draw from my personal experiences and to discuss career possibilities beyond the classroom, skill sets I have found necessary (beyond math), and a few key challenges faced by women in our field. A spirited discussion regarding the pay gap and the importance of negotiation entailed. I enjoyed the free-flowing discussion, and felt like this open and welcoming atmosphere was present for the rest of our gathered time.

Throughout the two and half days of the workshop, we had the privilege of hearing from a number of women who have successful careers in academia, industry, and government. They shared their lessons learned, fielded questions, and led discussions about career opportunities and challenges experienced. I cannot possibly capture a comprehensive account of all the great talks and conversations that took place in this workshop, so I provide merely a few personal highlights.

two ladies talking in the hallway

Amanda Goldbeck (R) talking to a participant of the workshop.

Amanda Golbeck introduced the concept of viewing one’s career path as a jungle-gym rather than a ladder. We tend to have the ingrained view of the traditional (and linear) career path, while in reality, to maintain a healthy life–work balance, flexibility is required.  Another grain of wisdom she offered is that being a strong leader is important, but being a valuable team member is paramount. I think this is often forgotten in our power-hungry society, but the truth is that more can be accomplished via cooperation and we should value the cultivation of teamwork skills.

Panel at the women in math workshop

L-R: Ulrica Wilson, Lea Jenkins and Amanda Goldbeck.

Drawing on her experiences at a historically black university, Ulrica Wilson offered a great explanation as to why having workshops such as this one is not only relevant, but important for increasing and maintaining diversity. When we take the time to create this space, we are able to stop focusing on what makes us different and just focus on the math—which is really what we were all drawn to when we chose this pursuit in the first place!

Marie Davidian gave a fascinating overview of notable women in the mathematical sciences, both in the past and the present. I was captivated with the story of the trailblazer Gertrude Cox, founding head of the (then-named) Department of Experimental Statistics at NCSU in 1941. Her recommendation for the position came in the way of a footnote appended to a letter containing a list of recommended male peers: “Of course if you would consider a woman for this position, I would recommend Gertrude Cox of my staff.” This truly puts into perspective how far the community has come with regard to gender equality.

The workshop attendees were energetic and engaged, which made the panel-led discussions and breakout sessions (not to mention breaks) both stimulating and fun. The participants were largely graduate students and early career scientists, who had plenty of thoughtful questions for the expert representatives from academia, industry, and government. Even though I may have been cast as one of the experts, I found that I learned a lot and left the workshop with a to-do list of actions I am interested in taking. In particular: joining a mentor network, engaging more in professional society events, and advocating for family leave benefits.

I am glad to have had this opportunity to consider the challenges, and solutions to those challenges, faced by women and minorities in the mathematical sciences. I’d like to thank SAMSI for hosting this event and allowing us to gather and reflect on both the progress that has been made, and the issues that remain. It is only through this type of directed intention that we may continue to move towards equality.

Statistical Methods and Analysis of Environmental Health Data

The following was written by SukhDev Mishra,Ph.D., Division of Bio-Statistics, National Institute of Occupational Health, Indian Council of Medical Research, Ahmedabad(India)

group shot

Statistical Methods and Analysis of Environmental Health Data Workshop group.

I was fortunate to attend the SAMSI workshop on Statistical Methods and Analysis of Environmental Health Data last week in Mumbai. It focused on various topics related to the statistical analysis of environmental health data, some of which discussed latest methodological development in this field, particularly during the first day’s opening lecture from Professor Joel Schwartz.

Time series data has proven to be critical in the assessment of systematic impact of environmental factors on human health. Professor Francesca Dominici, a researcher with significant contributions in this area was a very dynamic and enthusiastic co-leader for this workshop. She discussed in length the statistical principles and assumptions of multi-site time series analysis along with careful interpretation of such data. Due to technological advances and regular measurement availability, time series data could be accessed and easily analyzed with the techniques elaborated by Professor Dominici, which will be integral to the success of my future studies.

Working Group 5 - Gene x Environment Interactions

Working Group 5 – Gene x Environment Interactions

The Gene x Environment Analysis & Epigenetics lecture taken by Professor Bhramar Mukherjee provided very useful information on interaction/additive and multiplicative models citing practical applications in area of environmental health that she developed. Her very creative way of teaching, blended with great sense of humor, kept us engaged so much so that we wouldn’t blink for a second.

Spatial statistics is a critical part for environmental health data, so it was helpful to have the basics covered by Dr. Safraj Shahul Hameed and Dr. Brian Reich well. Professor Donna Spiegelman presented a wonderful talk on measurement error starting from statistical notations to complete logit function (being a statistician ….I always love this part J ). She put great effort explaining Regression calibration method for MS/EVS and algorithms. Interesting talk!

Working groups were engaged in different exercises that included working on different problems/real data sets generated through various participants and coming up with new analysis and interpretation of data. I worked on Exposure Modelling of Ambient and Household Air Pollution for Acute and Chronic Health Effects. I enjoyed working with my fellow WG colleagues- Kalpana Balakrishnan, Santu Ghosh, Donna Spiegelman, Kevin Lane, Joel Schwartz, Sourangsu Chowdhury , and Poonam Rathi. Fine scientific arguments during the process of analysis were the crux of our exercise; thanks to Joel, Kalpana, Donna and Kevin especially.

This is no way a comprehensive description of this workshop, just my thoughts. I would also like to record here that I learned from each and every speaker and fellow participant. It was a gathering of great scientific minds and very inquisitive researchers. My understanding is that one of SAMSI’s objectives is to foster a culture of collaborative research among Indo-US researcher in area of public health; and I could see that coming true as we collectively discussed ideas on how to continue our work in mutual scientific engagement. I hope these efforts result in great scientific endeavors in coming time for environmental health priorities.

People drinking tea during a break

Enjoying afternoon tea.

One of the unique features of this workshop was meticulous planning by the team of organizers, be it scientific contents or overall execution by Professor Richard Smith, Professor Sujit Ghosh, Professor Francesca Dominici, and Ms. Krista Coleman whose scientific management and interaction with participants was very encouraging.

My working experience mainly includes working in pharmaceutical industry earlier, as biostatistician, and I consider myself a beginner in environmental health. This workshop has helped me to gain more scientific perspectives in this area by leaps and bounds.

This kind of knowledge sharing exercises may prove very helpful for researchers in the area of statistics and epidemiology to address India’s most pressing public health needs. Thank you SAMSI, Harvard, ISI-Kolkata and all of the other participating organizations for such a wonderful experience!