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SDS Student Spotlight - Spencer Woody

Spencer portrait21 February 2018 - Spencer Woody is a student in the PhD in Statistics program in the Department of Statistics and Data Sciences

Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born and raised in Houston. I graduated from Duke University in 2015 with a dual degree in economics and statistical science. After that I spent a gap year living and working in Madison, Wisconsin before returning to Texas and starting the PhD program here at UT. In addition to being a PhD student, I also work as a graduate research assistant in the Eberlin Lab in the Department of Chemistry and a graduate assistant in the Department Women's Health at the Dell Medical School

Why statistics?

I've always had many eclectic interests, and statistics is a very interdisciplinary field, so it was a natural fit. In the past month alone, I've worked on projects relating to clinical outcomes, gene expression profiling, mass spectrometry analysis for histopathology, and high velocity physics experiments. I think it's very exciting to build a toolkit to derive insight from data that is applicable to a variety of scientific contexts. Plus, statistics right now is a rapidly evolving and growing field, and is at the intersection of many topics that are interesting to me, like computer science, logic, and mathematics.

What attracted you to the PhD in Statistics program at UT?

While the department at UT is still young and may not have the reputation of a more established institution, the upside is that there are few preexisting expectations for what the academic experience should be, and I appreciate the intellectual freedom afforded by that. Additionally, the department has a definite Bayesian slant, which is in line with my statistical background from Duke. Finally, because the department is relatively new and the demand for statistical skills in academia is growing, I sensed that there would be a lot of research and work opportunities here. Indeed that has turned out to be the case for me personally. 

Tell us about a project or piece of research you have worked on while attending UT.

The Eberlin Lab perform mass spectrometry imaging experiments to analyze tissue samples to build predictive models for detecting cancerous tissue during, say, an operation to remove a tumor. As their RA I am responsible for handling their data, which can often be quite large, and building these predictive models from the data. Going forward, my goal is to build more nuanced and robust models for the lab.

How would you describe your specific research to someone outside your field?

My own research revolves around post-selection inference. In the "old days" of statistical inference, a researcher would formulate a model, collect some data, and then perform analysis on the data. In many of today's inference problems, the first two steps are reversed; often we have a large amount of data first, and the we want to create a model to explain patterns in the data. Therefore most classical methods don't apply. We must reformulate our general approach in these cases so as to not report overly optimistic results that come from the fact that we've cherry-picked through the data. 

What inspires you?

I am inspired by all the intelligent and hard-working people around me, both in our department and at UT more broadly. I see all the great things they accomplish and it gives me the conviction and motivation to achieve my own goals.

Tell us a few fun facts about yourself.

  • A talent you have always wanted: Fast, legible handwriting
  • Favorite book: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Favorite quote: "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana."
  • Role model: Voltaire
  • Favorite vacation destination: Taiwan
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