VCU Systems Modeling and Analysis - Robert Reris

Robert Reris is a statistics student at Virginia Commonwealth University, located in Richmond, VA. He graduated in 2006 with a BA in Mathematics from SUNY New Paltz and is now working towards his PhD in Systems Modeling and Analysis. As part of our 'Future of Statisticians Series', ValuePenguin recently sat down and talked to him about the unique journey that brought him to VCU and why he's excited for the future of statistics.

What influenced you to pursue being a statistician?

I’ve always liked math and took some statistics courses as an undergrad, but wasn’t ready to pursue graduate studies at the time. After running a small retail business for a few years, I decided to sell the business and go to grad school. It was either going to be for statistics or computer science, and when I read Hal Varian’s famous quote about statistics being the sexy job in the next ten years, I figured it was probably a good field to get into. 

Why should other students consider a career in statistics?

With big data becoming bigger and bigger all the time, mastering the skills necessary to work with it and to glean information and insights from it will no doubt be a worthwhile endeavor, not only from a monetary standpoint but also from the perspective of being able to make a meaningful contribution to an organization or, with advancements in genomics and other new data-collection tools and methodologies, to other parts of society as well. I really don’t think there is a better field to go into right now.

What has been your experience with statistics at VCU?

It’s been a great experience at VCU. Most of the professors in my department really know their stuff and are always willing to give of their time to help students learn and move forward through the program. And because of the department’s location near the heart of Richmond and its status as a research university, it’s much easier to think about career directions and making career connections here than maybe at a lot of other universities.

Have you participated in any internships?

Last year and this past summer, I worked at a startup called Richmond Analytics. They are working on building a system to detect and analyze pharmaceutical orders that may not be on the up-and-up.  It was a great experience—I worked on their user interface and order management system and did a lot of coding in PHP, HTML and MySQL and did some model-building in R as well.  

An interesting or little known fact about the world of statisticians:

A little known fact about statisticians, I think, is that it seems most people think of them as introverted and maybe kind of antisocial, but from what I’ve seen the best statisticians are the ones who can not only crunch numbers, but also have strong personalities and the ability to fight for their conclusions—these are the ones who seem to be the most successful as well. 

What are the latest trends or developments in statistics?

The trend seems to be towards larger-scale machine learning and data analysis. Some statisticians will argue that the term ‘data science’ arising out of the ‘big data’ phenomenon is really just a new term for statistics, others argue that there are too many other concepts drawn from mathematics and computer science to say it’s only statistics. Either way, data is getting bigger and showing up in more areas of society, and collaboration between these different fields and working towards modifications of algorithms to work and perform well on massive, high-dimensional data sets seems to be where things are going. Many existing algorithms have trouble with data that has many more columns than observations, for example—so called “wide” data sets and the curse of dimensionality. My dissertation is focusing on robust principal components analysis methods, which may go towards combating problems caused by very high-dimensional data. 

What are your future aspirations and career plans?

Right now, I’m just focusing on my research and working towards the PHD. As we become an ever more data-driven society, it’s hard to say “This is where I’d like to be” or “This is where I’d like to end up” because I think there will be lots of opportunities in lots of different places. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can.

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