New statistics chair wants department to be a national leader
August 26, 2019 / by Nanci Hellmich
Jiayang Sun brings the sharp focus she uses when rock climbing and ballroom dancing to her role as chair of Mason Engineering’s Department of Statistics.
“Rock climbing and dance are activities where you have to be focused,” she says. “With rock climbing, if your mind drifts, you can hurt yourself. With dance, you have to focus, or you step on your partner’s toes.”
Just as a strategy is a must with both activities, her new position requires a similar mindset. Her vision: “Put the department in the national spotlight for statistical research and data science.”
She thinks the odds are good that she can do that. “This is Mason’s prime time to grow and raise its profile. It’s a great opportunity with the support of Mason leadership and unique opportunities surrounding the university,” says Sun, who is also a statistics professor and Bernard J. Dunn Eminent Scholar.
She recently worked as a statistical and biostatistical professor and the director of the Center for Statistical Research and Computing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
To boost Mason’s statistics department’s chances of getting national attention, she plans to:
- Develop more research collaborations with Inova, government agencies, and private industry.
- Create joint faculty positions with other organizations.
- Recruit top faculty, undergraduate and graduate students through increased publicity and faculty connections.
- Expand the curriculum to fit the needs of students.
So far, she has used her connections to bring experts from Harvard and Stanford to the department’s advisory board.
During her 20-year career, Sun has collaborated with experts in the fields of medicine, biomedical engineering, computer science, engineering, astronomy, and law.
Her research expertise includes simultaneous inference and multiple testing; big and complex data; statistical computing and graphical methods; bioinformatics, machine learning and mixture modeling for heterogeneous data; selection bias and measurement errors.
“There are data everywhere. If there are biases in the data that are not accounted for in research, then the conclusion can be completely wrong,” Sun says.
For instance, one study may show that drinking coffee is bad for your health, while another says it’s good for you. When the data is examined, researchers may be talking about different populations, she says. “Selection bias is a challenging obstacle in research, but it’s also an exciting area where we can make a contribution.”
Sun became chair in early August and will start running the department full-time next fall, as she is currently a Science and Technology Fellow, working as the big data strategic lead with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for one year.
“I had committed to the prestigious fellowship before I took the job at Mason. It’s going to open a door to an area that few statisticians have access to, and I hope to bring opportunities back to the department.”
In the meantime, she’ll be at Mason one day every two weeks to work with the interim chair on her vision for the department. “D.C. is a place with good feng shui—it’s the perfect environment for growth,” Sun says. “We need a strategy and a team to do something that will last.”