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Growing up, Veronica Berrocal tried to convince herself that she did not want to follow in her father’s footsteps and study statistics. Today, that young girl from Italy is a professor of statistics at UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). She has been named a fellow of the American Statistical Association (ASA) for “research in spatial and spatio-temporal statistics and applications to atmospheric and environmental sciences and environmental epidemiology.” She has served as chair of the Section in Environmental Sciences (EnviBayes) of the International Society of Bayesian Analysis (ISBA), and she has advised the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), sharing her statistical expertise on scientific advisory panels. Learn here what finally drew her to the field after years of resistance, and how she’s now sharing her passion for statistics with others, illustrating its impact and importance.

How did you first become interested in statistics?
My dad studied statistics, but when I was younger, I didn’t want to do what my dad did. When I was in high school and considering what to study at the university, I was very undecided. My mom suggested that I study math since I really liked it, and math has a large number of applications. I remember her mentioning atmospheric sciences and weather forecasting. So, I decided on math, stayed clear of anything that had to do with probability or statistics, and ended up specializing in differential geometry.

After getting my B.S. and M.S. degrees in math, I came to the U.S., to Michigan State University, on a scholarship to do research. As part of this research, I had to learn genetics and how to model genetics data. Since I did not know statistics, I had to take some classes — but ones offered not by the Department of Statistics and Probability but by the Department of Animal Science, where I was conducting my research. I started to take these classes with the goal of developing a model to identify ways to maximize animal production. Although the statistical topics were interesting, I was not really satisfied with the application and the focus on animal production, so I decided to take classes from the Department of Statistics and Probability and get a master’s in statistics. As I did that, I got more and more into it, and that’s how I found myself wanting to go for a Ph.D. So that’s how it all started. It’s funny because I actually ended up following in my dad’s footsteps!

Can you talk about how your work blends the fields of statistics and environmental science?
The environment and environmental science were things I was always interested in, even though I didn’t grow up in a family of people who typically go hiking, camping or anything like that. I was interested in animals, and I’ve always wanted to advocate for the weaker links. Seeing animals get mistreated, trees get cut down, or a piece of land get urbanized has always made me sad.

So I’ve always been interested in environmental conservation, and when I applied to the Ph.D. program at the University of Washington, I saw on the webpage of my advisor, Adrian Raftery, a project that excited me. He wanted to estimate the size of the whale population — specifically, the bowhead whale. The whaling commission needed to establish the quota of whales that could be hunted per year, so they needed to have an idea of how many whales there were in the wild. That’s not easy to determine, as one needs to estimate the size of the population based on what one sees occasionally.

When I went to visit the department, though, I was told that the funding for the project was over. I still ended up going there for my Ph.D. and working with Adrian on a project related to atmospheric sciences and weather (as my mom predicted years before). From there, I got interested in developing and applying statistical methods to answer questions in atmospheric sciences (e.g. weather, climate, air pollution). So, I’ve been interested in this particular area of science for a long time. Of course, now, with the threats connected to climate change becoming more and more evident, people are very interested in environmental science research in connection to human health and sustainability as well.

What projects are you working on?
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time working on projects related to air pollution. That was something I started to work on during my postdoc, and I’m still working on it. In fact, I’m collaborating with Jun Wu, here at UCI, on a couple of projects that are focused on estimating air pollution levels in California and quantifying the effect of wildfires, particularly on pregnant women.

I have also recently been invited to be part of an advisory panel that will be reviewing a tool the EPA has developed, called EJScreen. The tool lets you map and compare exposure to various environmental risk factors across space. Air pollution is, of course, one of the environmental risk factors that poses a threat to human health. More recently, I’ve become interested in climate change not only for its effects on human health or natural habitats but also in terms of agricultural production.

At this point, despite the climate disinformation campaign, I hope everybody understands that the climate is changing and that global warming is real. For me, even though I know that addressing climate change requires making country-level political decisions across the globe (especially by the countries that are the biggest polluters), I realized that I want to contribute to research on climate change more on the front of mitigation: what can we do to mitigate the effects of climate change?

You’re also helping expose underrepresented minority middle and high school students to careers in statistics and data science. Can you talk a bit about those efforts?
I’ve been thinking about the issue of diversity in statistics for a long time, in part, because I am mixed race, and I never completely felt at ease in certain environments. So, I always think about how it feels to be a student in a field where you don’t see many other people like you, or you don’t recognize your experience in the experience of your peers. The only way things can change is if we increase the number of students and faculty [from diverse backgrounds].

There is a lot of effort in trying to recruit students into the graduate program, but I think we need to start a little bit earlier. For some disciplines, it’s easy for students to think, “I want to become a doctor” or “I want to be an engineer,” because people are familiar with these careers. But if you’re not around people who are familiar with the Department of Statistics or the School of ICS, you might not really know about data science.

As I was thinking about how we might reach middle or high school students, I talked to Joni Ricks-Oddie [director of UCI’s Center for Statistical Consulting]. Joni had a connection with UCI’s Center for Educational Partnerships (CFEP), and she introduced me to the group. We did our first panel discussion together with high school students from Orange County. After that first event, I did other presentations with CFEP. I really enjoy talking to these kids and hope they will consider going to college for data science and maybe even grad school. But even just getting them into data science as an undergraduate is a win. There needs to be more outreach to put statistics and data science on the map for people. As I gave these presentations, I realized that many high school students don’t know what data science is, or what type of jobs one could do with a degree in data science. Many high school students also don’t know what a professor does, besides teaching.

You also did a seminar series on data science careers, correct?
Two years ago, I got an ICS Inspiration award, and I organized a seminar series on career paths that was meant to help graduate students. Because of the pandemic, the seminars were all hosted on Zoom. Despite not being in person, I managed to invite people from different sectors so that they could give graduate students an idea of the types of careers they could pursue after completing either their master’s or Ph.D. degree.

With the seminars, I also wanted to help take away the anxiety that students often have of thinking, “I have to figure out my life completely once I get my degree, or I’m stuck in a certain career for the rest of my life.” I wanted students to know that there are many different paths that one can construct. Our first speaker, Violeta Hennessey, works at Paramount Pictures. She got her Ph.D. in biostatistics at MD Anderson and is now the director of Paramount’s Digital Archives and Analytics.

Another speaker, Luke Bornn, used to be the vice president of strategy and analytics for an NBA team and now is co-founder of a sports analytics company. But he started as a professor. We also had speakers in more “traditional” careers: a data scientist who works at Google, a director of biostatistics within a pharmaceutical company, a professor focused mostly on statistical education, and a researcher who works in a government lab. All the speakers talked about how they built their career and what types of problems or projects they typically work on. Students really liked it. Anyone interested in viewing the seminars can contact me.

How has public awareness around statistics changed since you first entered the field?
I can definitely say that, even though I have only been a faculty member for 13 or 14 years, I can see the impact of statistics on public discourse. I remember when I was still an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, and I got invited as an ad-hoc member to join advisory panels, I would often be the only statistician on the panel – the rest of the panel was composed of toxicologists and environmental health scientists.

Now I get emails where the EPA explicitly states that they are looking for people with biostatistics or statistics expertise to serve on this or that advisory panel, and I think that’s true for many other advisory panels. More and more, the importance of statistics is being recognized, and statisticians are getting more involved in the public discourse. I think this really speaks to the impact of statistics.

It’s Women’s History Month. Any women in STEM trailblazers you want to spotlight?
Keeping it close to the areas of statistics that I work in, there are two women that I would like to highlight. Francesca Dominici from Harvard University was among the first statisticians to work on studies that assess the impact of air pollution on health using very large, population-level studies. She has contributed to evidence on the adverse health effects of air pollution, and her work continues to have enormous impact. I really look up to her.

Also, anybody who works in Bayesian statistics and spatial and environmental epidemiology knows Sylvia Richardson. Her work on Bayesian computation (MCMC) and on spatial modeling are part of fundamental knowledge for anybody who works in spatial epidemiology from a Bayesian perspective.

Our own Department of Statistics also has two trailblazers: Jessica Utts and Annie Qu! Jessica’s impact on statistical education is long-lasting. Thousands of students have learned statistics in their undergraduate classes using one of Jessica’s books. And Annie’s research breadth and contribution to statistics are quite hard to match; I don’t think there are many statisticians who have never encountered her name on a statistical paper, seen her name on the program of a statistical conference, or seen her give a presentation. So, we don’t have to go far to find inspiring women!

— Shani Murray