From Indifferent to Inspired: How An Unforgettable Cornell Prof Sparked One Distinguished Alum's Career in Statistics

As an undergraduate engineering student in the 1960s, Bill Strawderman had all but written off any probability of a career in statistics, having endured through a statistics course that left him “thoroughly convinced” of a career outside the field.

That changed when he arrived at Cornell to pursue a master’s degree in mathematics and found himself inside the classroom of a noted statistician. As Strawderman recalled, Dr. Jacob Wolfowitz “really knew the subject and presented it very well. He did in a way that was humorous.”

The two-semester sequence with Wolfowitz was an inspiration for young Strawderman, who would go on to earn both a master’s degree and a PhD in statistics from Rutgers University and become a leading voice in the field of shrinkage estimation. Next month, the longtime statistics professor will accept Cornell’s Distinguished Alumni Award during the Cornell Day of Statistics event on Friday, Sept. 11, in J. Willard Marriott Executive Education Center in the Statler Hotel. Beginning at 9 a.m., the all-day event includes presentations from the field’s most eminent researchers, including Strawderman, Dominique Fourdrinier of the University of Rouen in France, Marty Wells of Cornell’s Department of Statistical Sciences, Liza Levina of the University of Michigan, Harry Zhou of Yale, Richard Davis of Columbia, and Edoardo Airoldi from Harvard.  

“I was surprised,” Strawderman said of being named a Distinguished Alumni. “Cornell has meant quite a bit to me over the years. It was home to some of the better decision theorists – Larry Brown, Jack Kiefer, Jake Wolfowitz, Lionel Weiss, and Bob Bechhofer. When I was a young student and professor, those guys were well-known and had a really big impact on the field.”

After completing his master’s degree at Cornell, the Rhode Island native was employed at Bell Labs, beginning first in systems engineering and eventually working in the company’s statistics group. All the while, he took courses part-time in Rutgers’ Statistics Department, earning a PhD in 1969. Since 1970, he has been a statistics professor at Rutgers, and, in 2005, he received the university’s Distinguished Alumni Award in Science.

Defining statistics from a practical standpoint, Strawderman said, “I look at it as the science of organizing, presenting and analyzing data from essentially any field.”

From the pharmaceutical industry to social issues like climate change, data is being gathered and analyzed all the time, he said. Name the field, Strawderman said, and “you want a statistician.”

“Statistics has become more sexy, no question about it. Data mining and data science, there is a lot more focus on that. … One thing is clear: there is an enormous amount of data being generated. The volume is enormous. The growth of computing power makes it simultaneously easier and harder to analyze this stuff. You need strategies.”

Cornell Computing and Information Science Dean Greg Morrisett will open Cornell's Day of Statistics at 9:30 a.m., followed by the presentation of the Distinguished Alumni Award by Cornell Statistics Professors Marty Wells and Florentina Bunea. Strawderman will follow the award presentation with his talk on shrinkage estimation. To attend the event, register here.