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Statistician's Gift Helps Students Learn to Ask the Right Questions

Statistician R. Clifton Bailey of McLean, Virginia, has several decades of experience working on high-profile statistical studies for the government, but he’s still learning.

He has attended hundreds of statistics seminars at Mason in recent years, often asking questions from his front row seat.

Bailey is so convinced of the value of these events that he donated money to fund the R. Clifton Bailey Seminar Series for Mason Engineering’s Department of Statistics. He has also donated to help fund statistics students to travel to conferences.

An affiliate faculty member in the statistics department, Bailey believes students benefit from going to seminars and professional conferences because “they need exposure to new ideas.”

His donations to Mason Engineering are his way of giving back. “Since retirement I have been fortunate with some of my investments and am privileged to be able to share."

The weekly statistical seminar series is particularly beneficial to graduate students and faculty, and it attracts people from other departments at the university and the Washington, D.C., area, says Department of Statistics Chairman William Rosenberger.

At the lectures, Bailey “often asks the most penetrating and interesting questions that really hit the nail on the head and sometimes stump the speaker as well,” Rosenberger says. “He cares a lot about the future of statistics.”

Bailey’s interest in the topic runs deep. Born in Richmond, Va., he earned his undergraduate degree in physics from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia; his master’s degree in physics from Iowa State University in Ames; and his PhD in statistics and biometrics from Emory University in Atlanta.

His career spans teaching statistics for the social sciences at Clark, Morehouse, Morris Brown, and Spelman Colleges and holding statistical positions at the Food and Drug Administration, National Naval Medical Research Institute, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Medicare.

Bailey encourages students to develop expertise in at least one other field when pursuing a college career in statistics. Some of the best statisticians have knowledge in other areas, including the physical and chemical sciences, medicine, physiology, genetics, and agriculture, he says.

When doing research, statisticians need to think about long-term results, not just the short-term ones—something that’s missing in many studies today because of the rush to publish, Bailey says.

“The most visible observations are not necessarily the most important. You have to have a deep knowledge about what you expect to get out of the statistics," he says. "You have to ask the question—what are you going to do with the numbers?”

Bailey recommends students continue to pursue knowledge throughout their careers. “No matter how many courses, papers, and texts one has studied—there is always more to learn.”

February 6, 2018 / adapted from a story by Nanci Hellmich