Kiran Kumar ’18 is a senior math major with a mind towards diversity & inclusion in STEM (& life!). She plans to go to statistics grad school after she graduates—but first she wants to explore the real world!
The Baltimore Convention Center is a mammoth of a building with mildly revolting green and yellow wallpaper and soundproofing that makes you feel back in a high school band class. There is something decidedly superficial about the cavernous place. The carpets scream hotel ballroom, and all around you are a sea of people with lanyards, greeting each other. You catch snippets of conversations–“big data,” “machine learning” . . . “thesis advisor” and “defense” from the younger un-liver spotted ones.
Talks are filled with crusty professors to fresh-faced grad students—and of course us, the rare species: the undergrad. We are, as Yolanda Zhao ’18, my fellow attendee, call us “unicorns.” Statisticians are often on their computers or iPhones, reviewing their upcoming talk’s PowerPoint, tweeting presentation slides, or taking selfies (yes, statisticians are hip too). At first, to us fresh faced babes, it seemed oddly fragmented, distracting, and utterly overwhelming.
However, first impressions do not always last forever. The first day was a mini-disaster of talks from monotone paper presentations to an implicit bias panel where a white male faculty member lamented reverse racism (a LONG story I am happy to tell those interested). However, arriving at the mega conventional center the second morning, I felt my mojo kick into swing. Walking through the conference hall with my name bag perched at top my shirt, inside my heart & brain stirred a strange sense of professionalism.
There was one event that particularly stood out to me and would be insightful to you, dear reader of AWM blog! It was a talk entitled “Essential Research Tips for Junior Researchers.” It was our first major non-technical talk, and it actually provided us with useful information that you do not get in the classroom. Topics covered included: how to write a successful grant proposal, how to collaborate with scientists, and how to use existing statistical associations (e.g. American Statistical Association, Caucus for Women in Statistics) to advance your career. (If you’re interested in the notes from the talk, feel free to email me.) It was an unusually informative talk, and what was most remarkable about it was that all of the marquee speakers (except for one) were senior female statisticians. As Yolanda found out later and relayed to me, the chairs of Biostatistics at Harvard and Johns Hopkins (the two top departments) numbered among the female speakers. Coming from a pure mathematics background, this was such a welcome change!
Yolanda and I mustered our nerve and went to talk to the speakers afterwards. It was definitely not my first instinct to do so, but going together bolstered our shaky inclinations. The speakers were gracious and happy to talk to us! They gave us advice and offered their time if we wanted to email them with questions. I emailed one of them after the talk, and she connected me with some very helpful young female professors who gave me job searching advice. The biggest lesson that I learned was that ultimately statisticians are human beings too! No matter how successful or famous, they are people, and people love to be talked to at JSM (in a general setting, of course this principle may not hold!). After all, I would argue JSM is more about people getting together and “networking” than it is about the talks themselves.
As the conference passes from lived experience to memory, I encourage you all to go to a conference in your field of interest! I found it highly motivational in terms of discovering cool new topics and hobnobbing with researchers (& actually talking to them!) I was hesitant about going at first, but I am so glad that I went, and I wish you all the best of luck in your first (or nth!) conferences!