Predict 5 Creators Give Behind-the-Scenes View

Amanda Malloy and Donna LaLonde

We predict Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month will be a celebration!

In anticipation of this annual April focus on promoting mathematics and statistics, three dedicated ASA members have organized a unique contest designed to engage high-school, undergraduate, and graduate students.

Students will submit their numerical predictions regarding five questions on different topics and events taking place in April (the prediction must be a single number per question). There will be prizes for the top finishers!

It’s going to be a great time, and you can’t beat teaching or learning while also having fun.
– Matthew Finkelman

The minds behind the Predict 5 Contest belong to Sarah Pagni, Shruti Jain, and Matthew Finkelman. Here, they tell us a little about themselves and offer advice for the contest.

Tell us a little about yourself.

Sarah: I’m currently an assistant professor and biostatistician at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, and I’ve been working here for nearly nine years. I have a PhD in biomedical sciences with a concentration in microbiology from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and an MPH with a concentration in quantitative methods from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. In my role at Tufts, I teach biostatistics to the post-graduate dental students (residents, master’s, and DSc candidates) and collaborate with students, faculty, and staff on their research projects.

Shruti: I am a trained dentist and statistician, currently working in the division of biostatistics and experimental design at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. I completed my training in dentistry in India. I moved to the United States 11 years ago and completed a master’s in public health. It was while studying for my master’s degree that I realized my love for statistics and decided to pursue a career that combines dentistry and statistics. In my free time, I like working on art projects with my 2-year-old daughter, traveling, and working on my fitness.

Matt: I am an associate professor in the department of public health and community service and the director of biostatistics and experimental design at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. I absolutely love my job. I work with amazing people, collaborate on fulfilling research in dentistry and oral health, and lecture in interesting courses. Our students are awesome. I also conduct research on how to shorten computer-based screening questionnaires without compromising accuracy. On a personal note, I am so proud to be the husband of Amy Krasner and the father of Max and Adeline Finkelman.

Who are your statistical mentors?

Sarah: It might sound a little cheesy, but I would say the collaborative group we have here within our biostatistics team are really the people I admire. A lot of our work is independent, but it’s fantastic to have such great statisticians to work and learn with.

Shruti: I have been fortunate to have statistical mentors who have significantly shaped my understanding of the field. David Kriebel, my professor of epidemiology and basic statistical methods, was instrumental in laying the foundation for my understanding of statistical concepts. His phenomenal style of teaching statistics enhanced my learning and created an inquisitiveness to learn more. Additionally, I am constantly inspired by the knowledge and dedication displayed by my colleagues Matthew Finkelman and Sarah Pagni in our statistics-related responsibilities at work. I have also found user groups like the Boston Area SAS Users Group to be invaluable for staying updated on the latest trends and having discussions about nuanced statistical methods.

Matt: There are so many—I sincerely apologize to anyone I leave out! Victor de la Pena, who helped me start my journey in statistics; David Rogosa, Edward Haertel, Tze Leung Lai, and Susan Holmes, who instilled in me a passion for rigor in research and for creativity, compassion, and dedication in teaching/mentorship; David Weiss, who encouraged and guided me in my subfields of interest; Giles Hooker, Dylan Small, Eric Bair, Steven Roberts, Regina Nuzzo, John Storey, Debashis Paul, Eric Stone, Ryan Tibshirani, Armin Schwartzman, Sergey Terentyev, and so many more inspiring and wonderful individuals I met in grad school; Michael Nering, who taught me about the professional side of work while having fun at the same time; Alan Zaslavsky, David Harrington, Paul Catalano, and Musie Ghebremichael, who caringly helped me make the transition to biostatistics; Athanasios Zavras, whose leadership style combines kindness, logic, and fairness; and Sarah Pagni and Shruti Jain, who are the best teammates I could ever ask for.

From a historical perspective, I love the work of Abraham Wald, as I’ve long had an interest in sequential analysis and admire the clarity and logic of his writings. Moreover, when I take a step back and reflect on how truly lucky I am to have had fabulous mentors not only in statistics, but also in the dental field, it’s really amazing to think about.

Last but not least, my dad, Daniel Finkelman, was my first statistical mentor, as he encouraged me to pursue my interest in probability and gave me practice through many games of Strat-O-Matic Baseball. My mom, Carolyn Karp, has been incredibly supportive throughout my education and career.

Have you participated in hackathons or data challenges before?

Sarah: While I haven’t directly participated in a hackathon before, I have worked on the back end of research projects that stemmed from dental education hackathons. I also helped organize and participated in DentalFest here, which was a day-long contest for dental students to have fun with dental-adjacent activities.

Shruti: I enjoyed being a student participant in data challenges while attending school in India. In 2019, it was a fun and fulfilling experience to be on the other side of the data challenge when the division of biostatistics and experimental design at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine organized DentalFest, a day of challenges for dental students. It was amazing to see the overwhelmingly positive response to the event.

Matt: About 10 years ago, I organized a small public March Madness pool in which statistical modeling was involved; the winner was the participant whose model had the highest log-likelihood. I also participated in the pool. I learned a lot from the prediction exercise and from losing to my friend Andrew Ho.

What motivated you to create the Predict 5 contest? What do you like about statistical contests, and why do you believe they are important?

Sarah: To become more involved in the greater statistical community and provide a fun way for students to approach statistics. Contests are a fun way to think outside of what a more traditional statistical problem might be, especially for those currently learning statistics.

Shruti: As a statistician myself, I believe statistical contests like Predict 5 play an important role in developing creativity and problem-solving skills among participants. They encourage participants to hone their analytical skills. The competitive aspect of contests encourages participants to come up with novel and diverse approaches to finding solutions to the same problem. I find it interesting to get an insight into these different approaches. My love for challenges and statistics motivated me to support bringing the Predict 5 contest to the ASA.

Matt: I’ve had an interest in competitions for good causes and/or educational value since I was a teenager. Starting in high school and inspired by the work of Jonathan White, I’ve had terrific experiences organizing and co-organizing basketball, volleyball, poker, and trivia events to benefit charity.

My colleagues and I also held a DentalFest event and fundraiser at our dental school in which the students competed in fun and educational dental-related challenges.

The new Predict 5 contest is a perfect way to combine my passions for statistics and education. It’s going to be a great time, and you can’t beat teaching or learning while also having fun. I love the idea of students developing or sharpening their statistical skills and interest in the field while participating, and maybe one of the students will create a contest or event of their own.

I truly appreciate the efforts of Donna LaLonde, Amanda Malloy, and the ASA in collaborating with us on this initiative!

Do you have any advice for students who are about to try their hand at predicting, perhaps for the first time?

Sarah: Be creative and have fun!

Shruti: Predicting an outcome is an art and science. Don’t be afraid to experiment and keep refining your approach. And most of all, have fun!

Matt: If you use sophisticated techniques to make predictions in a given domain, think about the degree to which those predictions align with simpler approaches and your intuition/knowledge of the domain.

Are you Team R or Team Python? Or another team?

Sarah: Team Stata all the way. But I do use R, as well, so if I had two choose between the two, I’d be team R.

Shruti: Currently, I am wholeheartedly Team SAS. I am impressed by the user friendliness of R as a programming language, as well.

Matt: I’m Team Whatever Gets the Job Done but will always have a soft spot for R.