Trailblazing Statistician Elected to National Academy of Engineering

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Sallie Ann Keller, director of the Social and Decision Analytics Division at UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute
February 12, 2020

Several years ago, while working on a research project with the Arlington County Fire Department in Arlington, Virginia, Sallie Ann Keller had an epiphany. An unprecedented amount of data was available that could be applied to solve real-world problems in service to the public, but there wasn’t a research-ready workforce with the experience or dedication to put that data to practical use.

“This was a realization that our research wasn’t just about doing interesting data science; we needed to help our partners build capacity for data-driven governance. We needed to be creative in educating scholars willing to engage,” said Keller, Distinguished Professor in Biocomplexity, professor of public health sciences and director of the Social and Decision Analytics Division within the Biocomplexity Institute at University of Virginia.

That moment of insight led Keller and her team to begin an initiative that is now recognized as Data Science for the Public Good. Since 2014, the DSPG effort has expanded, and today includes a rich portfolio of transdisciplinary community-based research, a young scholars program, an annual research symposium and a speaker series, launched last year.

Success of the DSPG initiative is evidenced by its own data: 25% of the 75 young scholars have been hired in data-focused, civic-oriented positions in government, NGOs and think-tanks. And thanks to a recent $1 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, the DSPG program has extended beyond Virginia to university partners in Iowa and Oregon to form a three-state coalition focused on data science research to support rural communities.

This type of innovation is a hallmark of Keller’s career. Her curriculum vitae shows a versatility of roles with a focus on creating interdisciplinary programs for statisticians, social scientists, physical scientists, life scientists and engineers, all aimed at benefitting society; and it’s chock-full of honors and accolades.

On Feb. 6, Keller added another to the list when she was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, among the highest professional distinctions awarded to engineers. It honors those who have made outstanding contributions to engineering research, practice or education, and to the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology.

According to the academy’s announcement, Keller was recognized “for development and application of engineering and statistical techniques in support of national security and industry.”

“I have known and worked with Sallie for nearly 25 years, and for that entire period I have never seen her not focused on the most pressing problems, creating great teams, coordinating with the very best organizations and individuals outside her own groups, and connecting effectively to leadership at every level, from the research institution to national government,” said Christopher L. Barrett, executive director of UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute.

“She makes it all look sort of easy, even when clearly none of it was easy,” he continued. “Her history of effective scientific and technical leadership makes it very clear how she has come to be elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering. I have no doubt her service for the academy will be extraordinarily meaningful.”

Comprising 12 disciplines, the academy welcomed Keller to the Industrial Manufacturing and Operational Systems committee as one of its 132 living members.

Interestingly, Keller didn’t intend to pursue a career in the sciences. In fact, she thought she was headed toward graphic design and foreign language as an undergraduate at University of South Florida.

“When I went in to do my graduation check-in my junior year with my adviser, I declared French and art as my major,” Keller said. “That was received with some skepticism, and I was told, ‘Yes, maybe in another four years!’

“Without really realizing it, I had been taking math course after math course, and had the required credits to major in math. It didn’t ring a bell even after I won a math award from my community college coursework that math was it,” she said.

After taking her first statistics course in a mathematics graduate program, Keller knew that’s what she wanted to pursue, and has followed her passion toward an illustrious career as both a research scientist and a trailblazer.

When Keller was appointed the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Engineering at Rice University, she was the first woman to hold the position. She said she was at first apprehensive about the parade of distinguished engineering alumni who quizzed her repeatedly on her background.

But it quickly became clear they wanted to understand how statistics related to the fields of engineering. “I realized their concerns were not gender-based, but discipline-based. It was wonderful to learn this and to demonstrate how we could all work together to strengthen engineering,” she said.

Keller’s own research focuses on the development of statistical methods that integrate traditional structured survey data with administrative and unstructured digital data to study social science issues quantitatively at scale.

At UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute, Keller’s interdisciplinary team applies statistical rigor to help scientists and decision-makers confront some of the most complex problems in society.

“Working with massive data sets, the team’s research builds social and behavioral sciences models that characterize where we live, work, learn and play,” Keller said. “Through this research approach, with applications to local governments, army performance, industry and official statistics, we identify data and methodological gaps, laying the foundation for creating the ‘science of all data.’”

The National Academy of Engineering’s newly elected class will be formally inducted Oct. 4 at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

Keller thanked her current colleagues and fellow researchers from throughout her career for their support.“I am truly honored to have been elected to the National Academy of Engineering,” she said.  

“I look forward to continuing to serve our country in the advancement of science and engineering across academia, industry and government, as well as collaborating with my esteemed colleagues in pursuit of scientific research that is both novel and impactful here at the University of Virginia.”

Click here to see a complete list of the 87 new members and 18 international members of the National Academy of Engineering.

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