M3 Math Majors Matter ----------------------------------

SPOTLIGHT ON ...

           Steve Sain




Steve Sain is an Associate Professor who specializes in statistics. More specifically, his research interests include: Nonparametric Function Estimation, Environmental and Spatial Statistics, Classification, Discrimination, and Outlier Detection, and Data Mining
Where were you born?
I was born in Kansas City, MO, and grew up in Prairie Village, KS, a suburb in the Kansas City area.
Where did you get your undergraduate degree?
I got my bachelor's degree from Rice University in Houston, Texas. I also got my PhD (statistics) there as well.
What was your undergraduate degree in?
I had a double major in mathematical sciences and statistics.
Did you start college majoring in mathematics? If not, what was your major?
I had intended to major in some sort of science or engineering, but I had no real concrete idea coming out of high school. Like many freshmen who were more interested in the non-academic side of college life, I didn't survive Rice's "Big 3" which was the calculus, chemistry, and physics course cycles that all freshmen engineers go through. I switched to mathematical sciences and, for a while, flirted with second majors in mathematical economics and Rice's version of a business degree. After taking a mathematical modeling course focused on statistics during my junior year, I dropped economics and business and added statistics as a second major.
What courses or areas of study gave you trouble while you were an undergraduate?
I struggled with pretty much any class that met on Friday mornings. But, seriously, my lowest grade at Rice was in Calculus II (a very bad spring semester freshman year). I also just couldn't get excited about economics and accounting (so much for the economics/business major).
What math class was the most challenging for you?
Calculus II was my worst grade, but probably for reasons that were not necessarily related to the material. Differential equations was also tough. At eight o'clock in the morning, I was usually still sort of blurry. But, I spent a lot of time in the library working through problems. Much to my surprise the library has some pretty good places to study, something that I was finding difficult to do around the floor I lived on. I also remember linear programming being rough. I couldn't seem to slog through all of the steps by hand without making mistakes all over the place
When did you realize that math was of interest to you?
How did you know which area of mathematics to pursue?
These two questions in many ways go together for me. When I was in college, if anyone would have told me that I would be an academic, I would have told them they were crazy. I guess that I was always pretty good in math, although I remember not being allowed into the advanced math courses in junior high. Seems that I couldn't do simple things, like multiply, but I did pretty well with more difficult things, like the word problems on the math placement exam the school gave everybody in seventh grade. My parents fought to get me into the program, which turned out to be a pretty significant event since it eventually allowed me to take calculus in high school. Like many of my contemporaries in high school, anybody who showed any interest in science and math were encouraged to pursue some sort of engineering in college. That didn't really work out like I expected, but I had a class called "model building" during my junior year that one of the professors taught (Jim Thompson was the professor -- he visited the department last year and gave a talk on finance and portfolio optimization). The course was right after lunch and in one of the older engineering buildings (i.e. not much air conditioning) on campus. It was the spring semester and spring in Houston can be just down right hot. And humid. Basically, it was a better time to take a nap rather than spend time in class. But, something happened during that semester. My grades and my attitude towards school were improving (finally), and something about that class connected. I found myself actually working hard in the course, doing much more than just getting by. I was happy to be up at 2:00 AM working on assignments and projects for the course, rather than closing down the campus pub. I started talking extensively with Professor Thompson and Professor Kathy Ensor, who was the undergraduate advisor for statistics. Next thing I knew, I was taking the graduate sequence in mathematical statistics my senior year and preparing for graduate school.
What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment as an undergraduate?
Graduating and moving on to graduate school was certainly the highlight, but I also played club rugby at Rice. Rice had one of the oldest rugby clubs in the state of Texas, but for many years the club was just not very good. During my sophomore year, we became much more motivated and during my junior year we won Rice's first Texas collegiate championship. I also made a number of "select" sides, rugby's version of all-star teams. Since that time, the rugby club at Rice has become one of the more successful clubs in the state.
What would you have done differently as an undergraduate?
I would have paid more attention to my courses and taken my academic career much more seriously. And, I would have tried to stay out of as much trouble. One more thing: an advisor tried to encourage me to spend some time abroad. I regret not taking him seriously and doing what I could to make that happen.
What advice would you give to undergraduate math majors?
Try to stay focused on the reason that you're in college, have a little fun, and find that all-important balance between academics and life outside of class that is so important for success.
Are you the first PhD in your family?
Actually, I was the first person in my family to attend college at all.
Describe your area of research.
For many reasons, statistics can be described as the science of data analysis. Much of what I do as a statistician involves developing new ways of analyzing data. With advances in cheap computing resources, more and more data is being collected and stored. Often, these data sets are very large and are highly complex, with types of structure that goes way beyond the typical STAT 101 methods and assumptions that data is independent and identically distributed. It is an exciting time to be involved in statistics.
One of the fundamental problems in statistics is understanding the probabilistic mechanism that generated a data set. One approach is to assume some sort of parametric model (like the normal or Gaussian probability density function) and use the data to estimate parameters (for the Gaussian, this is the mean and the variance). Often, no a priori knowledge of the correct parametric model is available, but the data analysts can use one of the many so-called nonparametric methods that let the data in some sense define the underlying function. My early research focused on a particular type of these nonparametric methods called kernel density estimation (think of a fancy histogram).
More recently, I have switched gears in many ways and am focusing on environmental statistics. I am developing methods for multivariate spatial data, that is, data sets that are collected over space or space and time and have more than one measurement for each spatial location. Applications include assessments of environmental equity, police racial profiling, predicting crop yields from satellite measurements, and estimating animal counts from field surveys. I am also involved in large project with the National Center for Atmospheric Research where we are examining high-resolution regional climate models to look at the impacts of humans on climate (i.e. climate change).
Why did you decide to join the faculty at UCDHSC?
I was an assistant professor in the Department of Statistical Science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, and realized that it was time for a change. After taking a look at the department and the university, it seemed clear that there was a lot of potential and opportunity at UCDHSC (as well as in Denver and the Front Range) for statistics. The climate and people in the department were also a key factor. And, well, living in Denver was definitely a plus.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about mathematicians?
What misconceptions? You mean we aren't all geeks?
How can an undergraduate get involved with the math department?
There are lots of ways to get involved in the life of the department. There are research projects to be found (some of them might even be funded) and seminars to attend that introduce students to the kinds of things people are working on. As for degree programs in statistics, there is the statistics concentration in the undergraduate degree as well as an applied statistics certificate program. The certificate program focuses students into a collection of more applied classes emphasizing data analysis and also involves a research project that gives students a chance to work on real life problems.
Where is your favorite place you have ever traveled?
I love the outdoors and so pretty much anything with mountains makes the list. Mt. Ranier and Mt. St Helens in Washington and a way too brief trip through Moab and Arches National Park in Utah come to mind. I've just scratched the surface here in Colorado, but there are already just too many places to list.
What CD is in your car right now?
Nothing now -- just moved everything to my I-Pod.
What is your favorite movie?
As a big Tolkien fan, I loved the Lord of the Rings movies, and my 6-year old son's enthusiasm for the Star Wars movies has made me remember why I saw Star Wars about a dozen times in the theatre when I was a kid. I know it was a mini-series, but Lonesome Dove is also a favorite (the book is one of my favorites as well).
What is the best concert you have ever been to?
In high-school and college, I was a big Rush fan and went to several concerts. I saw Billy Joel put on a great concert in Houston. While I lived in Dallas, I got into a band from Louisiana called Cowboy Mouth that has a great live show. But, the best concert I ever saw was Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band during the Born in the USA tour.
What would you be doing if you weren't a math faculty member?
Wow. I haven't thought about that in a while. Hopefully, this isn't a hint?
Have you held any other jobs other than being a faculty member?
I started out as a caddy on a local golf course as soon as I was big enough to carry a bag. I made great money and a lot of future reference-letter contacts for a junior high kid. I was a stock boy in a woman's clothing store in high-school (kind of interesting when we had to vacuum the dressing rooms) and made summer money in college working in a men's high-end clothing store. I also tutored junior high and high-school math for extra money in college. Aside from TAs and RAs in graduate school, I put in a stint at the Department of Biomathematics at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. My first "real" job out of graduate school was as a research scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
What is your favorite activity?
Just about anything outside. I love the mountains and camping, hiking, skiing, etc. And pretty much anything with my kids - the zoo, the park, just kicking a soccer ball around with my son, etc.
What is your favorite sport?
I don't play rugby anymore, but I love playing just about any sport. Lately, it has been a little basketball, a little golf, a little racquetball (maybe too little might be more accurate). As a spectator, I'm more of a pro football fan than anything else, although I follow almost all of the local teams (as well as a few others) to some extent. It is almost a requirement in my house to be a Green Bay Packer fan - I guess that is what you get when you marry an official cheesehead from Wisconsin. What's really scary is when my wife and kids put on their matching Brett Favre jerseys on Sunday afternoons.
What is your favorite food?
I'm a big fan of Mexican and Tex-Mex food, but I'm not usually too picky and spicy food is always good.
What was your worst injury and how did it happen?
My first job after grad school was at a national laboratory in the Tri-cities in the desert of southeastern Washington state. I was still playing rugby pretty seriously then, but there wasn't much of a rugby culture in the Tri-cities. I was playing with a newly formed club in a match in eastern Oregon on a very muddy pitch. I don't remember the details too well, but I ended up on the bottom of a ruck. I knew something had happened and was sure that I was going to look down at my left ankle and see bones sticking out. I was relieved to not see any blood or anything too unnatural, but I had to admit that I couldn't play any more that day. After limping off the field, in true rugby fashion, I wrapped the ankle in an ace bandage (always carried one in my kit), grabbed some ice out of someone's cooler for the ankle, and was planning on heading to the party for a couple of cold beverages after the match. My wife, who was on the sidelines and heard the ankle snap, tried to get me to go to the hospital right then but I was stubborn and wouldn't budge. We (or my wife?) finally decided that we were going to make the four-hour trek through the Columbia River Gorge back to the Tri-cities. The ride was rough, but I think I was in shock and fell asleep in the back seat of the car. The next morning, I tried to stand up, heard (and felt) bones moving in the ankle, and nearly passed out. Finally, about 18 hours after the match, I agreed to go the hospital. The triage nurse unwrapped the ankle, and, while the look on her face said enough, she quipped, "It's not even straight!" Another hour later, I was in surgery to repair the three fractures and other damage in my left ankle. A titanium plate, a bunch of screws, a cast and crutches for the next three months, and a year-plus rehab pretty much ended any thoughts I had of continuing to play rugby.
What was your best Halloween costume?
I have a really cool (but sort of scary) mask that I got a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, I can't wear it since it makes my 4-year old daughter cry.
If you could have lunch with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
I hate these kinds of questions as there are so many people that would be interesting to spend some time with. Right now, though, I would have to say my father (he passed away this past December).
What is your favorite thing to do in Colorado?
Hiking, camping, skiing, snowshoeing, etc.


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