Campus Life

USU Inaugural Professor Recounts Pursuit of Multi-Disciplinary Career

Professor Jürgen Symanzik, second from right, with USU Mathematics and Statistics Department Head Richard Cutler, USU President Stan Albrecht and Provost Noelle Cockett, was honored March 23 during USU's 2014-15 Inaugural Professor Lecture Series.

What should you do if you can’t decide between two majors? Pursue both.

That’s the advice of Utah State University professor Jürgen Symanzik, who forged a unique career path combining his passions for statistics and computer science.

“I’ve always been fascinated with new technology and analyzing data,” says Symanzik, who shared his professional journey with family and friends March 23 at the USU President’s Home. His presentation, “A Life at the Intersection of Statistics and Computer Science,” was the 17th talk in the university’s 2014-15 Inaugural Professor Lecture Series. Coordinated by the Provost’s Office, the series highlights the accomplishments of faculty who have been promoted to full professor in the past year.

A native of Marl, Germany, Symanzik took his first computer science class as a 10th grade elective. He entered a national research competition with a project using BASIC programming to create simple computer games.

“To get computer access, I had to enroll in a statistics course at a local community college,” he says. “As it turned out, I discovered I really liked statistics.”

After completing secondary school with honors, Symanzik chose to pursue both statistics and computer science at Universität Dortmund, where he completed degrees in both disciplines.

“From there, I wanted to pursue doctoral studies in both fields, but the only degree program I could find was in the United States,” he says. “I found an opportunity at Iowa State, where I earned an interdisciplinary doctorate.”

The flat vistas of Ames, Iowa, with rows upon rows of cornfields were a far cry from his native Germany.

“The summers were hot, humid and mosquito-ridden and the winters were cold with blowing snow,” Symanzik says. “In fact, I experienced the famous winter with 32 consecutive days of subzero temperatures and wind chills that made it too dangerous to venture outdoors.”

The “up” side?

“Well, there was nothing to distract me from my studies, so I guess it was the perfect place to pursue a Ph.D.,” he says.

At Iowa State, Symanzik gained lifelong mentors, who helped to guide his growing interest in statistical graphics. He also met his future wife, Natascha Vukasinovic.

After graduating from Iowa State, Symanzik completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in computational statistics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. He joined Utah State’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics faculty in 1999 as a computational and graphical statistician and immediately dove into research.

“In short, I study graphical representations of statistical data and develop software that allows scientists of all disciplines to look at graphical representations of their data, as well,” he says.

Symanzik’s diverse research interests include data visualization, visual analytics, exploratory data analysis, exploratory spatial data analysis, interactive and dynamic statistical graphics, presentation graphics, as well as the history of statistical computing and graphics. His efforts assist scientists studying varied topics, ranging from climate and natural resources to birth defects, West Nile Virus and occupational illnesses.

Statistics, he says, is about making sense of data and discerning what all those numbers mean for “real life.”

“I enjoy passing this information on to my students and helping them reach their goals,” Symanzik says.

Beyond campus, Symanzik cheers for FC Bayern Munich and the German national soccer team and enjoys traveling with his family — especially to wineries, lighthouses and “unusual places.”

“We visited the future birthplace of Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk,” he says. “I’ve been to every continent — except for Antarctica.”

Related links:

Contact: Jürgen Symanzik, 435-797-0696, juergen.symanzik@usu.edu

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517, maryann.muffoletto@usu.edu

'Inspector Gadget' Jürgen Symanzik, professor in USU’s Dept. of Math and Statistics, demonstrates eye tracking hardware used in his research. Symanzik studies graphical representations of statistical data to help scientists ‘make sense of data.’

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