Dr. Ben Hansen has been with the University of Michigan Department of Statistics since fall of 2003, following a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania and graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley. Today, Ben serves as an associate professor with the U-M stats department.
Ben chose to study statistics only after enrolling in a different Berkeley Ph.D. program, Logic and Methodology of Science. As an undergraduate he had published a paper in formal logic, and he arrived at Berkeley hoping to use that background as a springboard to study methodology of science. However, his program turned out to be much more focused on logic than methodology. Every day on his elevator ride to his graduate student carrel, Ben would pass the Statistics Department, overhearing discussions among Statistics students and faculty. So after two years of studying logic, he decided to get off on the Statistics floor and start taking classes there.
One of the first struggles Ben encountered in the field of statistics was computing. In the moment that he first decided to pursue statistics, he had never taken a course in programming. There was a lot that he had to take charge of and learn on his own or with help from others. “I’ve been lucky to work with students with computer science training and even work experience in software development,” says Ben. “I have learned a tremendous amount from my students over the years.”
Ben’s statistical research relates to figuring out effects on human populations of medical, educational and other interventions. He aims to develop methods that will sharpen comparisons of subjects receiving a control condition vs. subjects receiving an intervention. Like many statisticians, Ben prefers to estimate impacts of interventions when they have been randomly assigned to treatment and control conditions, so some of the statistical methods he works on are particularly adapted to that scenario. However, Ben also maintains a long-term interest in statistical methods that attempt to compensate for the absence of random assignment.
Ben’s favorite part of working at the University of Michigan is that U-M is especially well organized to allow for cross-departmental collaborations and intellectual exchange. This makes it much easier to develop working relationships at the department, college, and university levels, but also presents a new hurdle – communication.
“We need to be able to explain to other researchers who aren’t statisticians the value of what we’re doing,” said Ben. “Many of us are drawn to statistics because we want to work in a math field that has practical impacts. But you also need to be able to make a contribution to a research project when that chance comes along.”
Ben didn’t just get his Ph.D. in Berkeley, California, he’s also originally from there, growing up a half a mile from where Kamala Harris did. (His friends at the time spanned the ideological spectrum, including one who would go on to marry the conservative commentator Michelle Malkin.) Although not from a university family, his grandparents were socially acquainted with David Blackwell, one of the pillars of the Statistics Department at Berkeley.