Past Recipients

Comparing Evolutionary Trees

posted Jul 8, 2010, 9:06 PM by Glenna Buford

Katherine St. John
City University of New York

AWM-MAA ETTA Z. Falconer Lecture


Evolutionary histories, or phylogenies, form an integral part of much work in biology. In addition to the intrinsic interest in the interrelationships between species, phylogenies are used for drug design, multiple sequence alignment, and even as evidence in a recent criminal trial. A simple representation for a phylogeny is a rooted, binary tree, where the leaves represent the species, and internal nodes represent their hypothetical ancestors. This talk will focus on some of the elegant, combinatorial questions that arise from assembling, summarizing, and visualizing phylogenetic trees.

The use and abuse of statistics in the media

posted Jul 8, 2010, 9:04 PM by Glenna Buford

Rebecca Goldin

George Mason University

AWM-MAA ETTA Z. Falconer Lecture
August 2008


News increasingly depends on a careful dissection of numbers. Statistics are everywhere, from how many people are not covered by health insurance to whether Vitamin E is good for you or not. Yet for being so prevalent, statistics are awfully badly understood by the general public.

In this talk, I'll illustrate how the press can misuse and even abuse statistics. Since news sources are the main avenue by which the public understands many public health issues, these misguided representations of science can actually shape public policy, legislation, and individual choices. We will see why it is so important that media writers understand basic concepts from statistics, epidemiology and even toxicology. I will also show how powerful the work can be when the press goes beyond politics and morality to get the science right.

These examples come from my experience as the research director for Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a nonprofit media education and watchdog group affiliated with George Mason University, where I am a professor of mathematics as well. STATS takes critical aim at the poor use of statistics to justify false claims or to back-up ideological agendas, while serving as a resource for journalists and producers who want to engage in high-level responsible reporting that takes into account what the science says, what it doesn't, and what it can't.

Mark Twain popularized the quote that "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics." While this quote suggests the scary idea that statistics can be manipulated to say anything, I will argue that statistics can tell us lots of useful things when used appropriately, and that the more the media does this for us, the more educated we can be as news consumers, and the better we will be at truly evaluating risk for ourselves and others.

Rebecca Goldin

posted Jul 8, 2010, 9:01 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Feb 27, 2012, 9:36 PM by AWM Web Editor ]

Rebecca Goldin received her PhD from MIT in 1999 under the guidance of Victor Guillemin. She then went to University of Maryland with a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship before joining the faculty at George Mason University, where she is currently an associate professor of mathematics. She is also the director of research at STATS, a nonprofit affiliate of George Mason which aims to educate the public and journalists about the responsible use of statistics in reporting. Recently, Goldin was elected to the council of the American Mathematical Society, where she serves on the Science Policy Committee. Goldin's mathematical research centers on questions in symplectic geometry and group actions on manifolds. She has had numerous grants from the National Science Foundation to support her work, and has attended conferences and given talks in many international venues. Last year, Goldin became the first recipient of the Ruth I. Michler Award.

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