“Our program seeks to help students fully tap into their potential and to ensure that we continue to develop bold thinkers who will be prepared for the challenges of new sources and new statistical problems.” – Dylan Small, the Universal Furniture Professor and Chair of Statistics and Data Science

A new program in Wharton’s Department of Statistics and Data Science offers advanced coursework and research experience for students who hope to earn a PhD but need additional preparation for admission to a statistics doctoral program.  The Bridge to a Doctorate Program in Statistics and Data Science is a two-year research master’s (MA) degree program which includes tuition, fees, health insurance, and stipend.  The program provides strong mentorship and a learning environment dedicated to teaching methods of statistical modeling for effective decision making. Bridge Fellows work with faculty on individualized curricula based on their research interests and goals.

The first Bridge Fellows began in the Fall 2023 semester with Emma Ross, a graduate of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and Nimo Ismail, a graduate of Tennessee’s Rhodes College.

First semester smiles from Nimo Ismail (left) and Emma Ross (right). (Image: Hoag Levins/LDI)

For those seeking a PhD, Wharton builds bridges

Ross, a native of Overland Park, Kansas, found the Stat Bridge Program when searching for predoctoral research and master’s programs to develop her research skills and help her focus on a specific content area. “When I read the description of the Stat Bridge Program, I knew it would be a perfect fit for me because of the individualized curriculum, focus on research, mentorship, and guidance on applying to doctoral programs.”

Ismail, who is from Phoenix, Arizona, began looking at graduate programs when her job search stalled. She opted not to apply to any PhD programs, feeling that she needed more coursework and research experience. “There were other bridge programs that interested me, but Wharton ensures that students like me are supported both financially and academically. I’ll gain research experience and, at the same time, build confidence in applying to PhD programs.”

Dylan Small, the Universal Furniture Professor and Chair of Statistics and Data Sciences, developed the program, knowing that there are students who have the talent, but may not have the financial resources, coursework, research, or mentorship for academic success at the doctoral level. “From my own work, I have learned the importance of strong structures for improving the field—whether it’s in research design and methodologies or in educating future statisticians,” Small says.

Pictured are Professors Zhang and Small, leaders of the program. (Image: Hoag Levins/LDI)

People who grew up in communities with a lack of resources, such as role models in statistics and related fields, may get a late start in thinking about statistics as a career path. Our program seeks to help students fully tap into their potential and to ensure that we continue to develop bold thinkers who will be prepared for the challenges of new sources and new statistical problems.”

The Bridge Program rises, one of a few of its kind

Nancy R. Zhang, the Ge Li and Ning Zhao Professor of Statistics and Data Science and Vice Dean of Wharton’s Doctoral Programs, co-directs the Bridge Program with Small.  The opportunity to mentor the Bridge Fellows is especially appealing to both of them who value their roles as mentors—both at Wharton and Penn with statistics students—as well as for organizations like Math Alliance, which supports students who are seeking a mathematical or statistical PhD.

Zhang is excited to be involved with the Bridge Program, one of the few programs of its kind. “There are bridge programs in other fields at many schools, but very few in statistics and in data sciences with the explicit focus on preparing students for PhD study and a future career in research.  Although this is only our first year, I am getting questions from colleagues in statistics at other institutions interested in developing their own bridge programs similar to ours,” says Zhang.

Zhang also understands that students sometimes need a little time in deciding to pursue a PhD in statistics, and to identify a research area that interests them. “After completing my master’s degree in computer science, I worked as a software engineer at a startup company.  I continued to read about genomics—a new field that I had studied while still in school.  That interest grew, and that propelled me to return to school for a PhD in statistics,” she reflects.

Tiny but mighty, the inaugural Stats Bridge Team chats in one of Penn’s many leafy corners. Pictured from left to right is Ismail, Zhang, Small, and Ross. (Image: Hoag Levins/LDI)

Small and Zhang were committed to creating the Stat Bridge Program, which involved many hours of work including curricular design along with administrative infrastructure such as a website, applications, and outreach to recruit students, including a Zoom meeting for potential applicants.  In addition, time had to be dedicated to answering student questions, application review, decision notification, and matching mentors with the Bridge Fellows. Small and Zhang cite strong support and encouragement from Wharton’s Dean, Erika James and Deputy Dean, Nancy Rothbard in making this program possible.

The Fellows look towards the future

As for the Stat Bridge Fellows’ goals, Ismail wants to become a professor in statistics and will focus her research on quantitative criminology with her research mentor, Greg Ridgeway, Professor of Criminology and Professor of Statistics and Data Science. “Before reading about Professor Ridgeway’s work, I didn’t know about the field of quantitative criminology,” Ismail refelcts. “Now, I am looking forward to gaining research experience and building connections with others in the field.  I know that I need quality support to prepare for a PhD program; and I’m excited for this opportunity.”

Like Ismail, Ross’ goal is also to become a professor in statistics. She will begin her research with Nandita Mitra, Professor of Biostatistics and Professor of Statistics and Data Science, and hopes to pursue research projects that directly help people in need, particularly those in Latin American communities. In addition, Ross also seeks to build a better future for other women interested in the data sciences.“I hope to do my part in creating a safe place for women to discover the beauty of mathematics and to debunk the myth that women aren’t good at math,” she says.

At the heart of it all: Zhang, Ross, Ismail, and Small gather on Penn’s Locust Walk in September 2023. (Image: Hoag Levins/LDI)

In the pursuit of academic excellence and breaking barriers in the field of statistics, Wharton’s Bridge to a Doctorate Program stands as a beacon of opportunity. As Ross and Ismail continue to set their sights on bright and broad horizons, they also embody the both their program and the School’s unwavering commitment to fostering excellent talent and groundbreaking research in data science writ large.

Read more about the Bridge Program here.

– Anita Henderson 

Posted: September 13, 2023

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