Department of Statistics Unitmark
Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences

In honor of the Department of Statistics' 50th Anniversary, we are highlighting our outstanding faculty and alumni of the past half-century.

Elizabeth Slate

Elizabeth Slate (Ph.D. 91) was always interested in math, inspired, in part, by her father being a physicist and her mother a systems analyst. Today, she is the Duncan McLean and Pearl Levine Fairweather Professor in the Department of Statistics at Florida State University. “The chair was made possible by David Fairweather, who received his Ph.D. in Statistics from FSU in 1970, and named the chair in honor of his parents. “David is an entrepreneur who founded diverse companies including banks, real estate, insurance and solar farms – my discussions with him are always enjoyable and very stimulating,” she said.

Elizabeth is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Statistics at the University of South Carolina. She is a Fellow in the American Statistical Association. Prior to her Ph.D. work, Elizabeth earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Carnegie Mellon. “My undergraduate major in mathematics and computer science required a sequence in probability and statistics. I signed up for the usual course (36-225, if I remember correctly) and walked into a very large lecture the first day. The instructor started by passing out envelopes to only a small subset of students, which I nervously found myself among. It turned out the letter was an invitation to take another, considerably smaller, version of the class (36-325). “I switched classes and was lucky to have Jay Kadane for the first semester and Rob Kass for the second semester. Toward the end of the year, I happened to encounter Jay over in Wean Hall, and he took the time to ask my plans. When I said that I'd seek a job, he said ‘Why don't you consider graduate school in statistics?’ My husband and I agreed it would be a good opportunity since we were planning to stay in Pittsburgh. After talking with more faculty, I was pleased to be admitted. Soon enough, my MS was nearly complete and Jay asked about my plans. I responded that I would get a job, to which Jay said ‘Why don't you stay and get a PhD? That was all it took to convince me,” she said.

Elizabeth called the Carnegie Mellon program “great preparation” because it emphasized fundamentals in probability, statistics and data analysis that are a strong foundation for more specialized areas. “The first year seemed very fast as we tackled weekly assignments on a vast array of methods through those half-semester courses. I often craved more time to think about the concepts and absorb them more thoroughly. Subsequent years helped with this. A real strength of the program was the use of computing. We were using S, BMDP, GLIM, SAS...I still remember first using the S function persp() to visualize a bivariate posterior distribution. We learned and worried about the numerical accuracy of the computations, which gave context to the discrete math and numerical analysis courses that I had taken as an undergraduate.

“John Lehoczky taught advanced probability so clearly I understood it, and I was fortunate to take additional advanced probability with Norma Terrin and a course in asymptotics with Rob. Rob also got me involved in a project at UPMC modelling growth curves among adolescents -- I ran an early Fortran version of Laird and Ware's linear mixed effects model estimation. This was the one experience I had that might be classified as biostatistics, yet I have gravitated to biostatistics in my career,” she said. “Elizabeth was a spectacular undergraduate in that 36-325 class she mentioned, which included about 25 of the mathematically strongest students at CMU: my recollection is that she did every assignment and exam essentially perfectly,” Rob said. “I was very happy to supervise her PhD thesis, for which she continued to do excellent work, combining mathematical dexterity with statistical good sense. Though the problem I gave her was, in retrospect, somewhat arcane, her thesis included an important practical result, which is unfortunately not well known, concerning the trustworthiness of large-sample inference in generalized linear models. “In any case, it's no surprise that she's had a great career,” he said.

The FSU Statistics Department offers a wide variety of programs for students, including MS and PhD degrees in both statistics and biostatistics. She teaches courses geared primarily for the biostatistics programs while also directing the MS program in Statistical Data Science (SDS).
“My days are filled with the usual academic activities -- teaching, student meetings, engaging companies in the SDS program, collaborating with biomedical science researchers, etc. "An example collaboration is with Dr. Amy Wetherby, the Director of the FSU Autism Institute. Amy runs multiple clinical trials with collaborators around the country to evaluate screening tools for earlier detection of autism and communication delays, methods for engaging families at earlier ages for screening, diagnosis, and entry into intervention, and coaching strategies to teach parents how to support their child’s learning and development earlier using family navigators and innovative technology.

“Another collaboration is with Dr. Hai Yao, a bioengineer at Clemson University, who studies all aspects of the temporomandibular joint so that, ultimately, we can predict and treat people with disorders before they become painful and otherwise problematic.
“A key attraction to statistics for me has always been that I have the opportunity to learn about such a wide variety of fields through collaboration,” Elizabeth said. One of her newer engagements is with the Southern Regional Council on Statistics (SRCOS, often pronounced "circus" for fun), an organization of academic programs in statistics and biostatistics that she learned about after moving south (after Carnegie Mellon, she went to Cornell and then, in 2000, to the Medical University of SC in Charleston, and then, in 2011 to FSU). SRCOS hosts an annual summer research conference and heavily emphasizes fostering development of graduate students and their interactions with faculty throughout the southern region. Her administrative involvement with SRCOS began as a co-organizer for the conference in Charleston in 2008. She has been the FSU representative, and this year is completing her term as President. “The SRCOS conference is co-sponsored by ASA, NISS and NSF, which provides substantial travel support for graduate students. I invite everyone to attend (just search on SRCOS),” she said.

In her spare time, she enjoys exercising, and is grateful to another statistician, Prof. Edsel Pena at the University of South Carolina (and, coincidently, an FSU graduate), for introducing her to the game of squash. Elizabeth still has family in Pittsburgh, and hopes to visit the Department when she next gets up this way again.