Analyze This: UK Stats Lab Open for Business

By Erin Holaday Ziegler

stats posterThe University of Kentucky departments of Statistics and Biostatistics have long been the campus consultants for making sense of all sorts of data.

"Quantitative data and analysis is vital to research in a data driven world, including many dissertations, but many students feel overwhelmed when they have to design their own studies or analyze real data, so they look to our department," said statistics Professor Arne Bathke of the College of Arts and Sciences. "They often know very precisely which research question they want to answer, but often they don’t know the most efficient and powerful way to collect the data, and how to make sense of it once it has been collected."

At the beginning of July, with the help of the Office of the Vice President for Research, several UK college deans, and infrastructure grants such as the university's recent Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA), UK statisticians in the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Statistics and the College of Public Health's Department of Biostatistics opened UK's first Applied Statistics Lab (ASL), which they hope will be the new face of statistical analysis on campus.

What's more, all of the work done in the lab will be free of charge, thanks to generous sponsorship of partners across campus.

"The funding structure in the past was that you paid for services you get," said Bathke. "We wanted to be able to help and collaborate without the financial pressure."

A typical professor of the humanities has great ideas but not a lot of money.

"That's why we approached several college deans, as well as the VP for Research, for base funding," Bathke said.  "We don't charge anyone and don't want to."

"The academic process simply doesn't work like that," added biostatistics Professor Heather Bush, who will be training most of the lab's research assistants (RAs).

The RAs, supervised by Bush, Bathke and statistics Professor Connie Wood, will, for example, help graduate students as they develop their first major research projects.

Bush tapped UK statistics alumna Candace Brancato to take on the lab's management role. Brancato will track each project and consultation throughout the year; colleges will reevaluate their lab use annually.

"People will get the help they need, when they need it," Bathke said.

"Twenty-first century research typically needs more data and quantitative support," added statistics department Chair Arnold Stromberg. "And frankly, the availability of data has increased dramatically through technological advancements."

While RAs will help other graduate students and faculty across campus, their work will allow them to become involved in interdisciplinary research and to grow professionally – many of them will later work as statistical consultants in academia, industry, and government.

Bush, a recent Provost's Teaching Award winner and author of an innovative introductory biostatistics textbook, has already begun helping students develop quantitative skills through lab-sponsored workshops. "People get excited when they are able to understand the data," she explained. "ASL is a way to show the friendlier side of stats, and that's part of making our discipline a core part of the research enterprise on university campuses."

After each consultation, ASL users will evaluate the lab in order to enhance service in the future.

Bathke and Stromberg hope by giving faculty members the opportunity to avoid paying for statistical services, the threshold for researchers to contact ASL is much lower, which will help in fostering an environment supportive of cross-disciplinary collaborations and partnerships.

In addition to assistance in designing studies and making sense of data, UK's statistics crew is interested in collaboration, and in facilitating collaborations that involve quantitative work. "So much research overlaps that not everyone knows about," Bathke said. "You realize that people are not talking enough to each other when you are approached to help with quantitative research across campus."

"A lot of times, our work with other areas of campus leads to a larger project," Stromberg added.

The formation of the ASL has included cooperation within the statistics community on campus as well. The lab will work with data from all over campus and represent colleges from all over campus too.

"The lab will pool statistical expertise that is spread all across UK, from UK IT to the College of Agriculture, lending their resources campuswide," Bathke said. "There's often more than one way to look at complex data; the different approaches, different experiences and skill sets will be helpful in handling the diversity of information we're going to be working with."

On many other university campuses, the departments of Statistics and Biostatistics don't get along as well as they do at UK.

"People often fight for resources, but we decided to put resources together," Stromberg said. "We've all had the same goal from the start — collaboration."

The ASL is set up to slightly grow and shrink based on annual funding. "We wanted to raise the level of quantitative research," Stromberg said. "And we're helping researchers become translational, which is becoming more and more important to national research grants and awards. The ASL directly relates to the mission of the CTSA. What does the data say that applies to real problems and issues?"

The ASL does not offer community services or substitute for taking a statistics class, but the lab staff will be able to refer those interested to other university resources.

"The ASL provides a new mechanism for communication about quantitative research on campus,” Stromberg said. "We won't turn people away."

For more information, email asl@uky.edu or the lab's new website at http://stat.as.uky.edu/asl.

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