Statistics As Inspiration: A Q&A with Helen MacGillivray, President of the International Statistical Institute

April 18, 2018 Jemma Blow

As we continue to celebrate Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month, we recently spoke with Helen MacGillivray, who wears multiple hats as President of the International Statistical Institute; Editor of Teaching Statistics; and Adjunct Professor in Statistics, Queensland University of Technology (QUT)

Q. How or why did you choose statistics as a career path/field of study?

A. Like many, I didn’t set out to be a statistician, as I was intending to be a physicist, but discovered that I was much more at home with statistical and probabilistic thinking, and its assumptions, modelling, analysis and applications. Statistics was optional in my undergraduate program, but by the end of my honors degree in mathematics, I was captivated by its conceptual structures, judgement, real-world problem-solving and universality. Nor would I have predicted my passion for teaching statistics and where it would take me, with its data-driven approaches, real and rich contexts, importance across so many discipline, learning environments which reflect the practice of statistics, and the explosion in technology. About 25 years ago I had to choose between progressing on the university leadership or the professional and teaching leadership pathways, and I chose the latter to stay in the statistical world.

Q. What inspires you about statistics?

A. My PhD was on statistical questions from industrial crystallisation but it led me to some fundamental problems requiring bringing together concepts, theories and applications. Such synthesis is part of the fascination of statistics, as well as the appeal of the endless challenge of understanding, analyzing, making sense of, and communicating uncertainty and variation in an amazing variety of real contexts across all disciplines. My teaching and leadership have ranged from large (200-600) classes across all engineering, life, health and physical sciences, technology and others, to specialist courses at honors and postgraduate levels. I have never stopped learning about teaching and communicating statistics through observation and evaluation, research, sharing learning with students and colleagues, and interacting with other disciplines and international communities.

Q. What are the most exciting things about your jobs?

A. My work now is in honorary international professional positions, having retired from fulltime work as a Professor in Statistics and Director, QUT Maths Access Centre. Across all my work, as tutor, counsellor, lecturer, professor, discipline leader, director, consultant and professional presidencies and editorial positions, the most exciting aspects have been to innovate and make a difference and to interact with people: hundreds of thousands of students, staff in statistics and many other disciplines, colleagues nationally and across the world, employers, past students, school teachers and authorities, authors and publishers.

Q. What would you say to students or Early Career Researchers who may be considering statistics as a career or field of study?

A.and computing skills are greatly in demand and not in good supply, so financially rewarding careers are  Studying statistics opens up an amazing variety of interesting and rewarding careers with something for everyone. Statistically-trained people with good communication, teamwork available across diverse interests.


Helen is only the second female, and second Australian, to be President of the International Statistical Institute (ISI) in its 130 year history. She was an inaugural Australian Senior Learning and Teaching Fellow, first female President and first female Honorary Life Member of the Statistical Society of Australia. She is Editor of Teaching Statistics, a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, Chair of the newly established UN Global Network of Institutions for Statistical Training, and a past President of the International Association for Statistical Education. Her work in teaching and curricula design across multiple disciplines, class sizes and educational levels received recognition and support through national awards and significant grants. She has published textbooks, book chapters, keynote, invited or refereed papers on authentic learning and assessment in statistics, quantitative learning support and statistical research interests in distributional properties.

About the Author

Jemma Blow

Marketing Manager, Wiley // Statistics & Mathematics

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