Struggling to learn a difficult subject? Try teaching it to someone else.
“It’s amazing how quickly you learn when you’re standing on the other side of the desk,” says Utah State University statistician Adele Cutler. “As a teacher, your brain processes things differently from the way you try to understand new concepts as a student.”
Among the classes Cutler teaches is an introductory statistics course she jokingly refers to as “Stats for Poets.” The suggestion of studying statistics elicits groans from most people — until they experience Cutler’s class. Her students walk away from the course with a new appreciation for the “Rodney Dangerfield” of subjects and say they enjoy Cutler’s enthusiasm for the discipline.
“I was once in their shoes,” says Cutler, who says she never aspired to becoming a statistician. “In college, statistics was my worst subject.”
Cutler, who was promoted this past year to full professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, was born in England and grew up in New Zealand. “From my accent, the Kiwis know I'm English, the English are quite sure I'm American, and the Americans usually think I'm Australian,” she says.
She chose business as her initial college major but soon switched to science, then physics, then mathematics and statistics.
“I ended up where I am through no carefully planned career path,” says Cutler who, along with her husband, Richard Cutler, joined USU in 1988. “I simply followed my passion.”
Cutler’s passion has taken her to the boundaries where statistics converges with computer science and electrical engineering and led her to research projects using such tools as bioinformatics, archetypal analysis and machine learning. She’s applied these methods to diverse fields ranging from genetics, medicine and astronomy, to banking, air traffic control and national security.
“An advantage of statistics is that you can participate in exciting research in a lot of different disciplines without restricting yourself,” she says. “As statisticians, what we’re really trying to do is think of better ways to get information out of data.”
Of particular significance to Cutler is her ongoing work with Random Forests™, a trademarked statistical classifier developed by the late Leo Breiman, her mentor and longtime colleague.
Breiman, professor emeritus of statistics at the University of California-Berkley, died July 7, 2005 at the age of 77. Renowned for his work with statistical computation, Breiman was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
“Random Forests was really a work of a lifetime,” says Cutler, who collaborated with Breiman for more than 20 years. “It’s a powerful, versatile tool that outperforms traditional statistical tools.”
Many data sets encountered in today’s scientific fields are much bigger and complex “than anything we’ve dealt with before,” she says. “Random Forests allows us to interpret data and gain insights in ways other tools can’t. We can explore, for example, why a ‘yes’ is a ‘yes.”
Each of us encounters applications using Random Forests, says Cutler, though we may not even realize it. Did you look up anything on Amazon.com or another online retailer today? You may not have noticed, but the site automatically logged your interests and, like an attentive salesperson, offered up a slew of suggestions for you.
Or perhaps you had a non-virtual shopping experience and handed your keys, with a colorful, dangling array of bar-coded, frequent shopper cards, over to a human checkout clerk. “Retailers collect an amazing amount of information about our preferences,” says Cutler.
In the life sciences, where recent developments in genomics have created floods of information, she says, Random Forests provides researchers with the ability to distill critical insights from huge data sets.
Cutler’s fascination with statistics never wanes. “If I get a day when I can do anything I want, I’ll sit at the computer and work on Random Forests,” she says.
Her goal is to continue Breiman’s work and complete a book on the subject. He even chose the cover art for the book – a work by Cutler’s young son, Phil.
For a presentation at a conference, Cutler selected a photo of a forest showing bare branches shrouded in fog. “I thought it was really pretty, but Leo (Breiman) said, ‘Too gloomy.’
So Cutler commissioned her son Phil, then seven years of age, to come up with a drawing. “Leo loved Phil’s crayon drawing. He said, ‘It’s bright, cheerful and, most importantly, shows the simplicity of the method.’”
In a world obscured by mystery, complexity and reams of data, says Cutler, statistics provides a light at the end of the tunnel. “Statistical tools give scientists that moment of clarity, where it all becomes clear,” she says.
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