New name for the math department

This summer, the math department officially changed its name to the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, embracing a long-time subfield within their department. John McCarthy, the chair and Spencer T. Olin Professor of Mathematics and Statistics, discusses what inspired the name change and his hopes for how the new moniker will influence the course of the department.


John McCarthy, the chair and Spencer T. Olin Professor of Mathematics and Statistics

What inspired the name change?

There’s a growing demand for courses in data analysis and statistics throughout the university. Traditionally, the home of statistics has been in the mathematics department. The number of statisticians we’ve had has been growing, and we thought it made sense to acknowledge this in the name of the department. When I came here in 1991, two out of the 28 faculty members were statisticians. Now we have six statisticians out of 26. So it’s a growing group, and now we have a PhD and master’s degree in statistics.

The new name is also just a more accurate reflection of what we do. Just like you can have a department of Romance languages, where people teach Spanish, French, and Italian.

Do you think there will be more statisticians in the future?

I see more statisticians, and I hope that we also see more mathematicians as well. The number of majors has tripled in the last decade, and we have the largest department in Arts & Sciences in terms of students taught. There is a growing demand for mathematics as well as statistics. It is hugely employable. We just started a joint-major with  Engineering: Mathematics and Computer Science. If you know some coding and some mathematics to think abstractly, then there are huge career opportunities.

Do you think there could be a parallel between the amount of information and data available with the rising demand for statisticians?

Absolutely. We’ve gotten very good at gathering large quantities of data in both science and business. And what we want are meaningful answers, which require doing something intelligent with the data. We can’t just have a million pieces of data and press a button to answer a question. Instead I want to say, “I’ve done a brain scan on you, do you have a tumor?” You take an MRI scan and you get a huge amount of data out of it, but you’re really only looking for a couple of things.

What do you think the advantage is of having statistics grounded in the math department?

To do statistics properly, you have to understand the mathematics behind it. If you just know how to do the tests, without understanding the theory, you don’t know when they’re deceiving you. You can’t be a good statistician without being well-rounded in mathematics.

There’s also an advantage in having statistics in the math department in that it still stays rooted in theory. It’s slightly a niche position, but I think we occupy it well.