Professor Owais Gilani draws on chalkboard

Bucknell Adds Statistics to Mathematics Degree Offerings

June 29, 2020

by Brooke Thames

Professor Owais Gilani, mathematics, believes the new major will help students stand out in a rapidly evolving job market that favors candidates with data analysis skills. Emily Paine, Communications

From social media marketing to public health research, it's no secret that data analysis lies at the core of some of the world's most cutting-edge careers. To equip students with the skills they need to break into these and a host of other industries, Bucknell is expanding its mathematics program to include a major in statistics, starting in the 2020-21 academic year.

The new major will add a bachelor of science in statistics to the University's robust offering of undergraduate mathematics degrees. It's an addition that Professor Owais Gilani, mathematics, describes as crucial for students looking to stand out in a rapidly evolving job market that favors candidates with data analysis skills.

"Statistics is the backbone of data science. Students who have some background in statistics are seeing higher rates of success landing positions in sought-after fields like finance and business," Gilani explains. "As it's becoming increasingly important to make strategic decisions based on data, it's necessary that we train our students to understand and use data in ways that will make them competitive once they graduate."

Students pursuing a major in statistics will complete 10 required courses along with three electives, several of which are new additions to the mathematics curriculum. "Data Visualization & Computing" lays the groundwork for data simulation and visualization using advanced programming software, while "Modern Data Analysis" provides a flexible framework for students to grapple with pressing, real-world issues through a statistical lens.

The latter course, which will change topics every semester to reflect current events, is one that mathematics professor KB Boomer believes will be a major asset in placing relevant, impactful data in students' hands — from statistics regarding racial profiling to projections about the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic, Boomer says, could present an especially compelling backdrop for upcoming iterations of the class. In the race to eradicate the virus, statistics play an essential role in predicting the consequences of reopening local businesses and the design of vaccine clinical trials, making it "the bread and butter of the CDC."

"Spending a semester digging into how disease modeling is done and how conclusions are drawn would give our students an intimate understanding of what they're experiencing." Boomer says. "Being able to reframe a course like this according to what's happening in our world gives students opportunities to make meaningful connections and apply the tools they're learning in ways that are immediately useful."

'Deep Commitment to the Liberal Arts'

It's also a chance for Bucknell's numerous faculty statisticians to bring their unique expertise to the forefront, which mathematics professor and department chair George Exner says was a driving force in developing the new major. While schools of comparable size may have one or two statisticians, Bucknell's department includes four data experts who specialize in a range of concentrations.

"From cluster analysis to biostatistics, our professors are able to expose students to a wide range of diverse methodologies and applications," Exner says. "Although statistics is largely interdisciplinary, something that sets our faculty apart is their deep commitment to the liberal arts mission of Bucknell — bridging the gap between STEM and the humanities by incorporating social and ethical issues into the math curriculum."

For Gilani, who specializes in spatial and spatiotemporal statistics, the new major not only gives current mathematics students a new, versatile major to consider, but it also provides an exciting answer to a question many prospective students have been asking about Bucknell's math degrees.

"One of the major things that made us move in this direction is that it's become standard for prospective students to inquire whether we have this major," Gilani says. "Now we can proudly say yes."


What will you discover with data?