This summer marks the 3rd consecutive year the Department of Statistics is hosting the David H. Blackwell Summer Scholars Program. It was planned and put together by the department’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity committee in honor of a brilliant mathematician alumnus, Dr. David H. Blackwell. This 6-week program was created with the purpose of increasing access and equity for graduates in statistics, data science, and mathematics.
The scholars of this year’s program are Ariel Ivy, Samuel Park, Hala Abdelrazek, and Tanaiya Sumter.
In addition to the scholars, this year’s mentors are Professor Zhang and Professor Bravo. Professor Zhang is mentoring Ariel Ivy and Hala Abdelrazek, and Professor Bravo is mentoring Samuel Park and Tanaiya Sumter. They have not only offered their full guidance and support for their mentees, but they have also challenged each one to surpass their own expectations.
To begin, Susu Zhang is a Joint Assistant Professor at the Department of Quantitative Psychology and Statistics. She began teaching at the University of Illinois in Fall 2020. Her research primarily focuses on analyzing data from educational and psychological studies. In her free time, she enjoys playing the piano, cooking, and reading non-fiction books.
This year is Professor Zhang’s first year mentoring for the Blackwell Summer Scholars Program. In the previous year, she was one of the seminar’s speakers. “This year, I wanted to do a little more and contribute to the program by serving as one of the mentors,” said Zhang.
Zhang is honored to participate in this program because of her respect towards Blackwell. “He is one of my favorite statisticians. Not only was he very brilliant, but he was also one of those scholars who managed to be resilient and strived during a time when society was especially unfriendly and harsh to people from underrepresented groups. Despite all these hardships, he persevered in his work and made a lot of very important contributions in statistics. Some of my work is based on his theorem, the Blackwell Theorem, that he derived. Overall, I think he is a great role model, and I feel very great that our department has this program.”
The research topic Professor Zhang, Ariel, and Hala are working on examines achievement gaps in mathematics between underrepresented students in the United States. They are utilizing public data released from large scale assessments from K-12 education to better understand exactly why the achievement gaps exists between historically underrepresented demographic groups with lower socioeconomic backgrounds compared to their peers. Zhang explained that “some of these gaps appear to have widened after COVID-19 when education transitioned online. This is by comparing the mass score of the students from different gender groups, racial and ethnicity groups, demographic backgrounds, and whether students attend private vs. public schools.” More variables include analyzing test taking behavior and survey backgrounds such as students’ exposure as well as accessibility to electronic devices and or technology.
Overall, Professor Zhang hopes that the students genuinely have a good time. She expresses, “I hope they enjoy the projects that they are working on. If they previously don’t have a lot of research experience, they can get a better idea of what research is like and what hands-on data analysis is like. I also hope that through the seminars and the other activities that they get a better idea about our Stats program and the different kinds of studies that people do in Statistics. Additionally, if they were previously uncertain about whether they are passionate about statistical research and this kind of research in general, then through this hands-on experience, they can get a better idea about whether this is something they want to pursue in the future.”
To continue, Lelys Bravo De Guenni is a Clinical Associate Professor at the Department of Statistics. She began teaching at the University of Illinois in 2019. Before she became a professor at the U of I, she was a visiting professor at the University of California in Santa Cruz, Northern Illinois University, and the Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral in Guayaquil, Ecuador. She also was a full professor at the Department of Statistics and Scientific Computing for nearly 25 years in Venezuela. When she is not teaching and or working, she enjoys hiking, learning new languages, embroidering, and playing the guitar.
Professor Bravo has been a mentor since the start of the Blackwell Program in 2021, making this year her 3rd consecutive year as a mentor. “As much as I love teaching, I love the mentoring process a lot more. Teaching a class is a very different experience than mentoring. When you are mentoring, you have the opportunity to guide each student’s progress more closely than what you’d do in a class,” said Bravo.
Bravo expressed that “it is always a very interesting process. Sometimes we have students that have no idea what the meaning of research is. They may find that the level of independence required of research is challenging in the beginning. However, in the end, it usually is a very nice experience for them because they realize that what they gain out of this program is how much individual effort they put in, and that is what makes a difference in the end.”
For their research topic, Professor Bravo, Samuel, and Tanaiya are analyzing earth science datasets. Their main goal is to find the strength of the association between large scale atmospheric circulation indicators and a measure of drought conditions estimated from local climate data. They are utilizing standard correlation measures as well as “Convergent Cross Mapping”, a technique within the scope of “Casual Inference” in order to estimate potential causal relationships between macroclimatic conditions like “El Niño phenomena”, and the local drought conditions in Central Illinois.
Professor Bravo hopes that by the end of the program, “the students get a flavor of what it means to ask questions about a particular application and how you can answer these questions by analyzing data in a certain way. My main goal is that they can work with these datasets, are able to get their hands dirty with the data, and that they understand the value of this process. Overall, I hope this program continues to grow as well as gain a more international flavor to give more opportunities for these students to come to UIUC and see what we can offer.”
Finally, this program is made possible because of the DEI committee, professors, faculty, and staff in the Department of Statistics. The co-creator of this summer program as well as the chair of the DEI committee is Professor Kinson. Christopher LeRon Kinson is a Teaching Assistant Professor in the Department of Statistics. He became a faculty member in the department in 2017. He is originally from Albany, Georgia and made Urbana his home when he enrolled in graduate school at the U of I in 2011. In his free time, he enjoys DJing, dancing, and creating art.
As chair of the department’s DEI committee, Professor Kinson prioritizes spending quality time in getting to know the scholars in social and academic settings. His responsibilities include organizing social activities to foster a greater sense of interconnectedness among the scholars and mentors. He also leads the seminars to engage them in creativity and coding. “My goal is to push students’ academics, give them space to be uncomfortable, and foster their growth in statistics and data science,” said Kinson.
During his interview, Kinson also shared his deep values of diversity as well as his pride in Black heritage. With his drive to foster diversity at the U of I and with the support of many colleagues, this led to the creation of the Blackwell Summer Scholars Program and its successes today. “I’m Black and during my time as a PhD student in this department, there was only one other Black PhD student and one Black faculty member. When I began meeting other Black PhD students, they were in other departments and colleges across campus. It bothered me that I felt alone in my department. The isolation was difficult to deal with because my undergraduate experience was at a HBCU, where a majority of the students and faculty looked and identified as I did. Eventually, I wanted to transform that feeling of isolation into something positive and productive. Derek Houston and I came up with the idea of having a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) summer program within the department. We pitched the idea to Jeff Douglas, and he was very supportive. Our very first scholar was Aaron Hudson, and he eventually earned his PhD in Statistics,” said Kinson.
Overall, Professor Kinson expressed that he enjoys seeing students mature and develop into researchers. “I hope that our scholars continue developing their knowledge and skills beyond this program. I want to see them succeed in life. I also hope that the Blackwell Summer Scholars Program contributes to their success. I’d love to see our scholars join the department as graduate students or faculty.”
Gianna Pham is a staff writer for the Department of Statistics. If you have news to share, please contact the Statistics news group at email@example.com.