Statistically Significant

Cassandra Pattanayak

Statistically Significant

Photo by Richard Howard

Photo by Richard Howard

In June 2013, Cassandra Pattanayak arrived on campus to launch a new initiative. Her position: Jack and Sandra Polk Guthman ’65 Director of Wellesley’s new Quantitative Analysis Institute (QAI). Her mission: To expand the role of statistics at Wellesley.

Pattanayak was teaching at Harvard when the opportunity appeared. “I was really excited about this job,” she says. “The QAI was created because of a sense among the faculty that they needed a statistician to work with—someone to collaborate with or consult with who knew the latest in statistics. At the same time, there was a sense that the courses that include statistics could be expanded at the College. The idea was, let’s create some sort of structure to see if we can improve in both those ways.”

She hit the ground running. In her first year at the College, Pattanayak—who earned her Ph.D. in statistics at Harvard—provided some 200 hours of consulting for 76 faculty and student research projects. Her subject areas included biology, chemistry, cognitive and linguistic sciences, computer science, economics, engineering, environmental studies, history, neuroscience, political science, psychology, religion, sociology, and women’s and gender studies. She also collaborated with several faculty members on research projects and provided teaching support to eight departments—and that doesn’t include teaching two regular courses and a summer course.

“I’ll have days where I’m scheduled for a few back-to-back meetings, and the first one is about injecting something into rat brains, and the second one is about nursery-school kids, and the third one is completely different,” she says.

Pattanayak says the QAI student interns she worked with helped her expand her consulting reach. Sophie Sun ’14, for example, was a senior math and economics major who heard there was a statistician on campus. She appeared at Pattanayak’s office in a corner of Clapp Library and asked, “What can I do?” Pattanayak suggested options such as a statistics research project or an independent study on something not offered at Wellesley. “Or, she could just hang out and watch me try to develop a consulting service, I said. And she chose the third option.”

“I worked on about 15 projects in total,” says Sun, who is now a research assistant in the National Bureau of Economic Research at MIT. “Some of the them were traditional science experiments where we would think that stats are involved, but half were social-science projects where we don’t necessarily think numbers are involved. We would listen to their problems and try to find the right statistical tools and help with the implementation.”

‘The thing about statistics as a field is that it depends on other fields. I can have all these great techniques for analyzing data, but someone else is going to have the research question.’


Pattanayak collaborated with Nancy Genero in the psychology department to design a study looking at single-sex versus coed education in public schools. “In South Carolina, it’s legal to have single-sex classes in public schools. That’s not true in most states. [Nancy] was able to find an elementary-school principal who was willing to let us do an experiment. There are multiple components that we’re interested in. Many of the papers out there look for the effect for single-sex versus coed education on test scores and things like that. But what Nancy’s really interested in is psychological outcomes. How engaged are the students in their work? Is there a lot of peer-to-peer communication? Does that happen more or less in a single-sex versus a coed classroom?”

Pattanayak is also working with Hahrie Han in the political-science department on a study of voter engagement models, designing an experiment that will allow a political organization in Ohio to test its particular method of engaging voters against more standard models, both in the 2014 and 2016 elections.

Pattanayak (who’s also a trombone player) says her first year at Wellesley, while intense, was tremendous fun.

“There’s a famous quote from statistician John Tukey: ‘The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone’s backyard.’ I feel like my job embodies that.”

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