Penn State University Statistics - Vishesh Karwa

Vishesh Karwa is pursuing his Phd in Statistics at Penn State and is scheduled to graduate in 2014. Prior to enrolling in the PhD program, he earned his MS in Civil engineering, also from Penn State. His undergraduate degree was in Civil Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, India. We recently caught up with Vishesh to discuss his unique background and his experience with internships while at PSU. Here's the interview:

What influenced you to pursue being an statistician? 

My undergraduate major was in civil engineering, but from early days I was inclined towards math and statistics, but I never really discovered my love for statistics until my MS in transportation engineering. I remember taking a class on categorical data analysis where as a part of a project we were studying how to reconstruct car accidents using limited data available from after the crash. Using physical models and some statistical “magic”, we were able to predict accurately, the speed of a car (among other factors) during the accident! It was almost like a CSI episode! It made me realize the scope and applicability of statistics and how fun it can be to work with data to discover new things. Someone once said, “Statisticians get to play in everybody’s backyard”. This is the beauty of statistics!  I found myself being interested in many things at the same time, and I realized that the common thread between these was statistics.

Why should other students consider a focus in Statistics?

We are in a time where there is a data deluge and we need people to analyze data. Every single event and activity is recorded; even this line I am typing will become some form of data that will be text mined by search engine sites! With such large amounts of data, companies need statisticians to make optimal data driven decisions and researchers in almost all fields need statisticians to analyze their data. Apart from the reason of there being high demand for statisticians, I think applications of statistics are huge and very cool! Detecting credit card frauds, predicting stock rates, insurance rates or climate changes, retracing one’s genetic lineage to figure out the path taken by our ancestors, discovering new cures for diseases, making informed policy decisions, exploring the universe to learn about new stars and galaxies, forensic sciences and even analyzing music and chord structures are just a few applications that fall under the scope of statistics. A “focus” in Statistics will open a big door of opportunity that will be rewarding and really fun!

What has been your experience with Statistics at your college?

I have been very lucky to be at Penn State Statistics department! My peers, professors and staff have been very helpful and supportive. I have learnt a great deal from the teachers in our department. Our department also has a lot of outreach activities. Many of our students and professors collaborate with researchers from various fields such as life sciences, climatologists, astrostatistics, forensic science, computer science, political science, marketing, just to name a few. We also have a consulting center where we offer consulting services to other departments; it was really a fun and great experience to apply everything that we learnt in class to real life problems!

Have you participated in any internships, and if so, how many and how were they?

I was lucky to get involved in two great internships, one at SAS in Cary, North Carolina in the summer of 2011 and the other at AT&T research labs at Florham Park, New Jersey in summer of 2012. Both the internships were really fun, and I got to learn a great amount and meet some awesome people at these places. At the internship in SAS, I was working on developing algorithms and tools for performing statistical causal inference, such tools are useful in a wide variety of disciples. At AT&T research labs, I got to work with experts in databases where we were working on protecting privacy of individuals in a large relational database.  

Please share an interesting or little-known fact you've learned about the world of statisticians...

Statisticians are not nerdy people sitting in front of their computers all day crunching numbers or sitting in a closed room deriving complicated equations, and statistics is far from being boring and difficult! I am surrounded by statisticians that are also musicians, dancers (to see how well statisticians can dance, come to the JSM dance parties), hikers, and bikers; they are all very enthusiastic and fun to be with!

What are the latest developments or trends in Statistics?

Statistics has recently come into public attention because of the big data push in the industry (among many other reasons); this year is also being celebrated as the international year of statistics! Many companies are now using the power of statistics to make well informed decisions for their customers and products. There have been many websites hosting statistical challenges where one can use their statistical skills to analyze data and win prizes! Also, having good computing and programming skills are becoming more important especially given the fact that datasets are becoming larger and larger, demanding more computational resources. It is an interesting time as more and more people are realizing that statistics can actually help them make informed decisions in their own life! 

What are your future aspirations and career plans?

After I graduate, I wish to work in a research environment either in a university or industrial research lab to continue developing statistical methodology motivated by questions in other fields.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Apart from statistics, I spend time running, biking and hiking and learning to play the piano! For anyone considering statistics as a career option, I would say go for it! It’s really a lot of fun!

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