The world needs lots and lots of data professionals


On May 20th 2014, Columbia University held their annual graduate commencement ceremony. 40,000 attendees, 10,000 graduates and one Irish academic as Master of Ceremonies, Trinity graduate and Statistics Professor David Madigan, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Columbia.

Commencement at Columbia is an occasion steeped in tradition, a spectacle and one where traditionally the address by the President of the university is used as an opportunity to comment on wider trends in society. Traditionally the Master of Ceremonies is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. This year was David Madigan’s second year in the role.

"Being the MC for the Columbia commencement before 40,000 people was a blast to be sure but my job at Columbia isn't all fun and games! Most days I'm involved with teaching, research, and administration. Some of the recent research I have been part of has real potential to impact healthcare practice and I am very excited about that.” Professor Madigan works with The Observational Health Data Sciences and Informatics (OHDSI) Program which is a multi-stakeholder, interdisciplinary collaboration to create open-source solutions that bring out the value of observational health data through large-scale analytics.

Upon his appointment to his current role the President of Columbia University, Lee C. Bollinger had this to say, “David’s highly regarded scholarship in statistics is distinguished by a combination of creativity and practicality, making possible the successful use of large data sets in addressing challenges such as helping doctors to predict the side effects of prescribed drugs and gaining insights about the future course of illnesses based on large samples of patient outcomes.”

Despite the challenges encouraging Irish children to study maths to a high level in schools, Madigan tells us that “Ireland has a long tradition of world-class mathematics! Robert Adrain, William Rowan Hamilton, and John T. Graves for example. My interest in statistics derives from a course I had with Eamonn Mullins at Trinity - he was the best teacher I ever encountered.”

“The inexorable rise of computing and large-scale data storage has provided extraordinary opportunities for statistically-minded professionals. While Mathematics can get abstract, Statistics is very concrete. Data literacy is now a basic skill - understanding what inferences about the world can and cannot be reasonably derived from data. The characterization of Statistics as a branch of mathematics is misguided. Statistics involves mathematics for sure, but also computing, ethics, business, law, and communications. They say "data scientist" is what they call a statistician in San Francisco! Whatever. The world needs lots and lots of data professionals.” 

Where are you from, and how long have you been in US?

I am 51 years old. I grew up in Athlone where my mother was a first class teacher in the Fair Green. I went to Dublin in 1979 and to the US in 1990. 

What was the highlight of the commencement ceremony this year?

Just being at that spot at that time. Not quite what I anticipated growing up in Athlone!

Have you any advice for people in their careers that will make them more productive or successful?

"Whether or not good work is recognized and appreciated is often a matter of luck. Thus it is important to set your own goals and standards and pay less attention to what others say. In many of the jobs I have had, focusing on progress on a small number of defined tasks rather than trying to address every last problem or challenge has proven to be the best strategy and is one I still adopt. Also, I've learned to be skeptical about generic career advice but here goes!”

- Do what makes you happy

- Don't take yourself too seriously. One bout with a serious illness will make office politics seem a little silly.

- Be flexible. Today's workplace requires that you remake yourself periodically.

David Madigan serves as the ninth executive vice president for the Arts and Sciences and dean of the faculty, a position he assumed on September 3, 2013. Since March 2013, he had served as the interim executive vice president. He is a professor of statistics at Columbia University, and served as the department chair since 2007. Before coming to Columbia in 2007, Professor Madigan was dean of physical and mathematical sciences at Rutgers University. He is a Fellow of the American Statistical Association, the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He received a bachelor’s degree in Mathematical Sciences and a Ph.D. in Statistics, both from Trinity College Dublin. He has previously worked for AT&T Inc., Soliloquy Inc., the University of Washington, Rutgers University, and SkillSoft, Inc. He has over 120 publications in such areas as Bayesian statistics, text mining, Monte Carlo methods, pharmacovigilance and probabilistic graphical models. He recently completed a term as Editor-in-Chief of Statistical Science and is the current editor of Statistical Analysis and Data Mining.