Dr. Ya’acov Ritov has been a part of the Department of Statistics at the University of Michigan since 2015. Ya’acov is a 2008 recipient of Humboldt Research Award, an honor that is granted in recognition of a researcher’s achievements that have had a significant impact on the discipline in which they work.
Although Ya’acov was originally educated as an electrical engineer and worked for many years in that field, his career path changed when he decided to pursue a Ph.D. in history philosophy at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. Unable to get a job as a teaching assistant or graduate student instructor, Ya’acov decided that philosophy wasn’t his strength and perhaps he should get another Ph.D. So, within a year of starting his degree in philosophy, Ya’acov decided to change fields. At first he was torn between a degree in Statistics or Physics, but when the Department of Statistics at his University was the first to offer him a GSI position, his choice was made.
After graduating with his doctorate in 1983, Ya’acov stayed on for many years in the Statistics Department at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem before coming to the University of Michigan. While his entrance to the field was a bit bizarre and rather based on chance, we in the U-M Stats department are happy to work alongside him.
Historically, statistics was about relatively simple models working under the assumption that the number of variables couldn’t be larger than the sample size. However, around the turn of the century, statisticians came to realize that what is really important is the number of parameters from zero and that, theoretically, it is possible to relax the definition of what is efficient. It is that breakthrough in the field that led Ya’acov to his current research interest, which is investigating large models with many parameters and understanding how best they can be handled.
As Ya’acov likes to say, statistics is about theoretical applications, and the current theoretical applications are about many observations and much larger amounts of variables. As the term ‘theoretical applications’ suggests, there aren’t always applications for statisticians’ work. Ya’acov himself doesn’t believe in individual impacts, but rather views research as an endeavor that he participates in – a small part of the larger scheme of things. However, it is his belief and hope that some of the theories that he is a part of developing will become the theoretical basis of something that will be applied outside the field.