Alumni Spotlight – Martha Gardner


Martha Gardner and Dean Dan Solomon
Martha Gardner and Dean Dan Solomon

In appreciation of our outstanding alumni, we interview Martha Gardner. Dr. Gardner earned her doctorate in 1997 and currently works as chief scientist at General Electric Global Research. She was listed as MIT Technology Review’s “Top 100” young innovators in 2004 and was awarded the 2011 Medal of Achievement from the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. In 2014, she will be serving as a Vice President of the American Statistical Association. We asked Dr. Gardner for some memories and words of wisdom from her time at NC State and at GE.

Q: What advice do you offer to students who are about to graduate and enter statistics as a profession?

A: “Be prepared to work hard, but work smart. You have to prove yourself in any new job. Take initiative and become an expert. Learn as much as you can about your new organization and it’s processes.”

Q: Does any particular memory stick out from your time as a graduate student?

A: “Of course the annual beach trip! What a great way to kick off the new school year. My friends and I still talk about how Hurricane Fran canceled the annual beach trip in 1996.”

Q: Is there anything you wished you had learned or done as a student that would have helped you later in your career?

A: “Not sure of anything specific, but some more exposure to business topics would have been helpful.”

Q: In your experience, what characteristics do you think make a great statistician or data analyst?

A: “I think it is important to be curious about what is driving the analysis. What do the inputs and outputs mean from the practical, not just the statistical, perspective. Interest in and learning as much as you can about the context of what you are doing will make you an invaluable part of a team. One of the best compliments I ever got was from a product developer in one of our business units who told me he thought I was a chemist.”

Q: Always a fun one to ask statisticians… Bayesian or frequentist?

A: “I was raised a frequentist, but have gotten more pragmatic as I have aged. Now I am about ‘what works’ to solve the problem at hand and am starting to integrate Bayesian methods in the quality training at my workplace.”

Q: How do you respond to the idea that statisticians have gone from “lies, damned lies, and statistics” to the “sexy job of the next 10 years?”

A: “Statisticians have a history of identifying relationships not previously known or understood that have advanced technology and human understanding, and, of course, made money for our companies. Problems are not getting any simpler, and the amount of data we have available to solve these problems is exploding. I think the progression is a natural one, even if statisticians weren’t the first to recognize it.”