“The field of statistics doesn’t fit neatly in a box,” says Dr. Nancy Heckman, head of the Department of Statistics at UBC. “We’re not just a subject relevant to science, although we are in the Faculty of Science. We interact with researchers and students in economics, medicine, policy, health, and the natural and social sciences.”
Nancy has been a faculty member at UBC since 1984. Besides being a passionate educator and researcher, she is a generous donor who contributes regularly to the University. Nancy recently created an estate gift to the Statistics Department. She is also a longtime supporter of the Statistics Fund for Excellence, which funds student awards.
There are two main prizes that recognize academic excellence in the Department of Statistics. The Nash Medal, named for UBC’s first statistician, Professor Stanley Nash, is presented to an outstanding undergraduate student while the Marshall Prize, named after Professor Albert Marshall, recognizes a graduate student. The Department also rewards excellence in graduate teaching, through an annual award.
“I am an educator,” says Nancy. “I see universities as important for all the practical reasons people say: to create skilled labour, to keep the economy strong, and to help solve the problems we face today. However, it’s deeper than that. A healthy society needs educated citizens. You need to be able to understand your history and look ahead to the future.”
Nancy also chose to endow the Jane Heckman Scholarship in Choral Singing as a tribute to her mother, a talented choral singer, who recently passed away. In a serendipitous twist, she discovered that Jane had also decided to honour Nancy’s passion by leaving a gift to the Statistics Fund for Excellence in her will.
“I love math structure, and I love problem solving,” says Nancy, who explains that it’s the ability to apply both creative and critical thinking that makes statistics so interesting to her.
“We get to play with pictures and graphs and figure out how to use data to answer important questions. It’s fascinating to think how a general template that analyzes the data structure of tracking objects, for example, could be used to understand the information from tracking devices on marine mammals, or people’s cellphones. There can be completely different applications.”
Today, Nancy explains, people are living in an age of information. There’s a lot of data being generated, and this makes statistics more relevant than ever. Devices like the Fitbit could revolutionize healthcare analysis, so it’s important to encourage bright students who can apply problem solving, math, and communication to help people make sense of all the data and see the big picture.
“I love statistics, and I know a lot about it,” says Nancy. “I have also served the Department in various ways, and I’ve seen the impact awards have on students. They are so happy to receive them, and it looks great on their resumes. Creating and funding awards help students for the long run, and I like having that impact.”