In celebration of the 21st annual Student Research Week (March 19-23) at Texas A&M as well as March as Women’s History Month, the College of Science will be taking five with five different women involved in both innovative research at Texas A&M and milestone firsts during the past academic year. Today’s kickoff segment features Texas A&M undergraduate statistics major Tessa Johnson ’17, the first official enrollee in and graduate of Texas A&M’s undergraduate statistics program.
Johnson, a third-generation Aggie and College Station native, walked across Texas A&M’s Reed Arena stage last August to pick up not one but two diplomas — a bachelor of science in applied mathematical sciences and, by virtue of alphabetical order, the first of the two bachelor’s of science in statistics degrees awarded that historic day. Remarkably, she finished that double major in only two years, initially enrolling at Texas A&M in August 2015 mere months after earning her high school diploma from College Station High School as a member of CSHS’s first official graduating class.
We recently caught up with Johnson, who currently is pursuing her Ph.D. in statistical science at Duke University as a James B. Duke Fellow researching population genetics and bioinformatics, to get her thoughts on statistics as a major and a profession and why Texas A&M was her obvious first choice to fulfill both her career goals and a long line of family tradition.
How did you end up at Texas A&M, and what made you decide to major first in applied mathematics and then also statistics?
“My family has been deeply involved with Texas A&M for a very long time. My father [Dr. Charles D. Johnson ’88, director of Genomics and Bioinformatics at Texas A&M AgriLife and co-director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Genomic Systems Engineering] and brother [Charlie Johnson ’14, a member of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets who currently is deployed overseas as an officer in the United States Army] both received their bachelor’s degrees from Texas A&M, and my father also received his Ph.D. from Texas A&M. Furthermore, my father and grandfather [also Dr. Charles D. Johnson, director emeritus of the Public Policy Research Institute and, among other distinctions, Texas A&M’s inaugural Regent’s Professor] both work at Texas A&M. So, to continue the traditions so ingrained in Texas A&M culture, I also went to Texas A&M. I always knew I wanted to be a statistics major and, in fact, met with Dr. Alan Dabney and Dr. Valen Johnson prior to beginning college about becoming a statistics major. I started as an applied math major since there was not a statistics major available when I began college — although given the way the statistics major is structured, it’s quite easy to pick up a second major or minor.”
What kind of research projects did you work on as an undergraduate, and why do you think students should get involved in research?
“The main research project I worked on during undergraduate was my capstone project with Dr. Alan Dabney. We developed a predictive model with statistical forensics applications. Essentially, it used various bacterial counts sampled from a deceased individual to determine their time of death. It was a very interesting project, and I greatly enjoyed working on it.
“Students should get involved in research during undergraduate for a number of reasons. It is a great way to discover what you’re actually interested in within your field and to learn what working in that field truly looks like. Furthermore, from a more practical standpoint, if students wish to attend graduate school, it’s an absolutely essential prerequisite. I actually still refer to the code I wrote during my undergraduate research when I am working on my current research at Duke. Finally, research can be a lot of fun! It isn’t like a class where you are expected to get the ‘right’ answer, but rather, it’s an exploration into new and unknown areas.”
What’s the best part about being a statistician?
“To me, the best part of being a statistician is the amount of interaction I get to have with people in other fields. I love learning, and I’m equally as interested in literature as I am astrophysics — and statistics is the perfect field for that. It is not uncommon for statisticians with be working on multiple projects in multiple fields. Essentially, any field that produces data (which is basically every field) has opportunities for statisticians to get involved.”
What are your favorite memories of your time at Texas A&M?
“Some of my favorite memories of Texas A&M were of my classes and the friends. My classes were always interesting, and I even got to take a number of graduate courses during my time there. I loved the atmosphere at Texas A&M where everyone was so friendly and nice. There was always someone willing to lend you a pencil or a scantron. I wish had a single memory that I could talk about, but honestly, there were so many great things about my experience there that I wouldn’t know where to start.”
What would you tell prospective students who are considering Texas A&M and/or majoring in statistics?
“Something I would tell prospective students who are considering Texas A&M is that there is a place for all sorts of people there. There are plenty of people who don’t like football and are interested in things that aren’t stereotypically Aggie activities. Don’t let the big university with lots of traditions scare you off. College is an individual experience, and if you don’t want to participate in something, you don’t have to. However, with that being said, I would encourage students to try lots of things out during college because there isn’t likely going to be another opportunity in your life to do so.
“Finally, there are two main recommendations I would make for students interested in statistics. First, start taking statistics courses and get involved in research early to find out if this is really what you want to do. Statistics is an amazing field, but it isn’t meant for everyone. Second, be prepared to take a lot of math courses because at its core, statistics is mathematics.”
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Now in its 21st year, Student Research Week is a friendly competition that highlights both undergraduate and graduate research at Texas A&M, one of the country’s top research universities. The weeklong celebration fosters an environment for students, faculty and administrators to learn about student research at Texas A&M and also gives students an opportunity to win numerous awards and cash prizes. To learn more about the week’s schedule and specific events, see this feature article or visit http://srw.tamu.edu/.
For more information about undergraduate research opportunities within the College of Science, go to https://science.tamu.edu/research/undergraduate/index.php.
Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or firstname.lastname@example.org