In honor of the Department of Statistics' 50th Anniversary, we are highlighting our outstanding faculty and alumni of the past half-century.
Carnegie Mellon Statistics Department alumnus Dean Follmann (Ph.D. 85) recalled one of his more memorable experiences occurred at his dissertation defense. After he presented and answered what he thought was the last question, and feeling good, Prof. Morrie DeGroot asked a question which caused Dean, as he remembered, “to try to push down a rising deer-in-the-headlights sensation.” The question was: ``Since we’re considering whether to give you a Doctor of Philosophy degree, can you explain your philosophy of statistics?” Dean said he stammered something about being a pragmatist and tried to gauge how that was going over in the quiet room when Prof. Rob Kass broke the silence with a loud noise “eRWARK” (like a game show buzzer) followed by “Wrong answer!” The room erupted in laughter and his defense was over. Dean is grateful to this day for Rob’s lending a very welcome hand. “I remember that thesis defense, too, as it's a classic story about Morrie DeGroot, the intellectual leader and senior member of our department,” Rob recalled. “Dean had arrived as a graduate student in Fall, 1981, the same semester I arrived, we had become friends, and I was on his thesis committee. Back then the defense had a more formal air to it, and there was always a bit of tension in the room. “Morrie really just wanted young statisticians to think hard about foundations, but he sometimes acted as if they were prey and he never missed an opportunity to pounce. Dean's response was just fine, yet no one knew whether Morrie would be satisfied. “In that moment I was glad I could help Dean out,” he said.
Before coming to Carnegie Mellon, Dean attended Elgin Community College and then Northern Illinois University. “My original interest was in psychology, but I evolved into statistics as I appreciated its rigor. I didn’t know much about different schools but a professor at NIU suggested I try the Psychiatric Statistics program at CMU. I visited after being accepted, and was impressed with the faculty who took time to meet with me and show me around. I had a sense that I would like CMU, and I really did. Pittsburgh, too,” he said.
Today, he works at the National Institutes of Health, focusing on research related to infectious diseases. “I find the basic science of infection and the human immune response endlessly complex and fascinating. This interest helps me with my statistical approaches to model formulation and data analysis,” he said. Dean credits his Carnegie Mellon education with laying the groundwork for his success. “The basic technical skills have been very important as they’ve given me the ability to apply rigorous statistical thinking to new settings. While I might have ideas, the CMU training allows me to express and formalize them. My go-to approach to a problem is to try specify a likelihood. I feel it’s like solving a fun puzzle. I also learned that writing is always hard but can be improved with effort, and I came to understand that I was a part of a community of statisticians. I was also lucky to have Diane Lambert as an advisor. She was wise, very patient, and encouraging to me,” he said. “When I got out of graduate school my only offer was at a think tank for the Navy. I worked with economists and found the work quite interesting---lots of likelihoods to write down and complex selection issues---but I knew this probably wasn’t what I wanted to do long term and went to NIH. NIH does a lot of randomized clinical trials and I remember worrying that this wouldn’t be very challenging. It seemed that if you randomized properly and respected randomization in the conduct and analysis of the trial things would be simple. Where would I find my likelihoods? But I’ve learned that there are many deep statistical issues in trials and have had fun working on them and being part of some important studies. I’m also lucky to work with an outstanding group of statisticians for whom I have great respect and affection,” he said.
Dean is married to Dona Patrick, who came to Pittsburgh with him for grad school, and who also grew to love Pittsburgh. The couple has lived in Alexandria, Virginia, and now Bethesda, Maryland. “We’re lucky to have two great grown-up children Clare and Andrew who live in Washington state and Washington DC. I’ve traveled a lot in work, especially to countries with a substantial burden of infectious disease. I’ve learned to not eat raw oysters overseas. I love bicycling and bike to work every day,” he said. Dean also credits his Carnegie Mellon experience for his aquatic travels. “At CMU a group of us statistics graduate students had regular raft trips to the lower Youghiogheny River. I loved the river and now kayak in the DC area, mostly on the Potomac River,” he said.