Jami Mulgrave began her career at NC State in 2012. Now just over a year shy of graduation, the statistics doctoral candidate has experienced professional and personal success. In addition to her research, she’s a member of Graduate Women in Science and the American Statistical Association, and she participates in the Women in Math Mentoring Program, where she works with eighth-grade students. Her dissertation advisor is Dr. Subhashis Ghoshal.
Mulgrave is also a talented musician: Her original song about her love of statistics received runner-up honors in a national PepsiCo contest inspired by the movie Hidden Figures. You can view her entry here.
Mulgrave sat down with us to discuss her passions for statistics, research and NC State — and how she’s setting an example for others.
Why did you choose NC State for your doctoral studies?
I chose to pursue my doctoral education at NC State because of the highly-ranked statistics program — it’s one of the best in the country. I also liked the fact that it’s a large department that does research in several different areas. When I was thinking about different schools, I wasn’t certain what area of statistics I wanted to pursue. I wanted to be some place where I had options, so that really attracted me to the program. Additionally, my dad received his Ph.D. in physics from NC State, and the university always had a special place in my heart because of him. He always told me since I was a child that I should go and get my Ph.D., so everything is coming full circle since I’m getting my Ph.D. at the same place he did.
Why are you passionate about statistics? How did you get into statistics?
I love the ability to solve real-world problems with math and computing. In high school, I took all of the required math classes, but I really wasn’t connected to them until I took AP statistics and I saw the relationship between math and the real world. I did well, and my teacher noticed and encouraged me. In college, I was a psychology and pre-med major, and thought I wanted to go to medical school, so I pursued that path. After college, I worked at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center as a research assistant in clinical research.
During that time, I revisited the idea of statistics again, because the center started talking more about healthcare analytics and using that information to solve problems and do cancer research. They were partnering with IBM Watson and working on building a data analytics department as I was finishing my time there. I started reading and learning more about machine learning and data analytics, and how that could be used to solve business problems and thought about how much I had liked it in high school. I realized that I enjoy using quantitative skills a lot more than I thought, and it came naturally to me, so I thought it would be a good area to pursue.
What does your research focus on?
My research at NC State focuses on Bayesian inference and what has been coined “nonparanormal graphical models.” I’m interested in using Bayesian methods to construct graphical models without assuming that the data are normally distributed. That’s where the nonparanormal or non-parametrics comes from. I love Bayesian methods and nonparametric methods, so it’s a very natural area for me to study. Graphical modeling is a great way to do visualization of data and learn relationships in a way that you may not get from your traditional methods.
How did you get into the Hidden Figures contest? What was that experience like?
I actually learned about the contest on Twitter. I had started being more active on the site, and someone I was following tweeted something out about the contest. I thought it would be awesome. Previously, I had known about the movie and had a signed copy of the book, so I was already excited about the subject. But after I heard about the contest, I thought it was a perfect fit and a great way to get the word out about STEM — and combine my passion for STEM and art. The timelines were pretty tight. I had two weeks to write two essays, and a week-and-a-half to create a video, which is something I had never done before.
What was really great was that I got some help from the Hunt Library. I met with a couple of consultants there about mediamaking and what makes a good video. They really helped me and pointed me to the right technology and spaces for shooting. I definitely credit them for helping make everything look good. I also played with a few ideas — I had always wanted to try out animation, and I knew I wanted to incorporate some singing, especially since I had written a song about statistics. It was a great way to combine things that I was interested in. I had no idea what was going to happen next. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I was selected, especially after hearing that there were more than 7,000 people who entered the contest. What I wanted to get across resonated with the panelists because the winners all had something they were doing in STEM that showed their human side, which I was also trying to show. I’m glad that people enjoyed it.
What is life like as a graduate student at NC State? What does a typical day or week look like?
As an undergraduate, I took classes in all types of subjects — art history, music history and all kinds of other classes. As a graduate student, I am very much centered and focused on statistics and different topics within that area, as well as computing. As a graduate student, my experiences are going to be different. Because I don’t have an undergraduate degree in statistics, I had to work a lot harder just to get up to speed, even taking a few additional classes to prepare myself for the program. There’s a lot of work and not always time for play, but I love being able to focus on one subject. What I really enjoy right now is the research. Before I had to try to balance schoolwork as well, which I enjoyed, but now research is the main focus. I wake up every day thinking about the problems I’m working on, and sometimes even during the middle of the night, too! I feel like all the hard work I put in is totally worth it, being able to focus 100 percent on research. I am collaborating with someone at another school to get a little bit of teaching experience right now.
What do you want to do once you complete your degree?
I’m still thinking about what I’d like to do after I finish my degree in 2018. There are two options I’m interested in — either industry or academia. I’m interning at AT&T Labs Research this summer, so I’ll get a little more industry experience, and I interned at SAS last summer. But I haven’t ruled out academia. I’m thinking about a post-doc or participating in professoriate workshops about what it means to be a professor. Going back to what I’m about, which is STEM and art, I want to be in a place where I can do that as well as I possibly can.
What does it mean to you to be a woman of color in statistics?
This is something that I care deeply about. It is part of the reason why I’m so motivated to obtain a Ph.D. in statistics, because I do want to be a role model for others. I want to show other people that this is possible, that they can do this. I’m doing it, and they can too. This area is hard, and I’ve had to work very hard to get here, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible or that I’m not capable, or that the next person isn’t capable. We need examples out there of folks already doing this, and I felt like I needed to start with myself. It’s something that I think about a lot — how do I want to get out there with that story and message. That’s also why it is important to show the human aspect of STEM. It’s important to show that I’m a woman of color, but I’m also a human and an artist. I do these other things that hopefully someone can connect with in some way, which may not be the usual way you think about a scientist. It’s very important and it’s something that motivates me to continue and to graduate.
Has your love of music and the arts enriched your experience with statistics?
Definitely. I think it is partially why I’m a very happy person. When I have had some difficult times in the program, I’ve been able to turn to music as my outlet. It helps ground me and keeps me going. To be able to combine my passions is even more awesome, which is why I enjoy writing songs. I enjoyed writing a song about statistics and performing it for the American Statistical Association, which is perfect! It does enrich my experience as a statistician and helps me become a better professional. There may not be a direct relationship I can show, but I know that it is part of the reason why I’m successful.
What advice would you give to someone pursuing an education in STEM?
Be true to yourself. To get here, I had to be true to myself and what I enjoyed. Don’t let what sounds good to other people decide what you do. If you are good at something, do it even if it doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. If you like it, then do it. If you can find something that you are good at and enjoy, then you can be a rock star.