UP professor elected into International Statistical Institute

Posted on May 11, 2020

The University of Pretoria’s (UP) Professor Sonali Das, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences’ Department of Business Management, has been elected into the International Statistical Institute (ISI). The ISI was established in 1885 and provides a global network for statisticians and seeks to, “lead, support and promote the understanding, development and good practice of statistics worldwide.”

Prof Das, who was born in India, spent her formative years in many different locations across India and Nigeria. She obtained her PhD in statistics from the University of Connecticut, after also studying at the University of Calcutta and Presidency University in Kolkata, India.

ISI elected membership is prestigious as it is only open to individuals who are established in their careers and have made significant contributions to the statistical profession, with candidates requiring the support of three existing ISI elected members.

“I am humbled that leading statisticians supported my nomination,” Prof Das said. “I believe that my National Research Foundation rating, being in the SA Statistics Association EC for many years and chairing the 2nd International Women in Science Without Borders in Johannesburg in 2018 proved my commitment towards statistical science in the evolving transdisciplinary research space.”

The ISI is also actively seeking members to become involved in statistical capacity-building activities in developing regions, which is one of Prof Das’s strengths.

“Having worked in a data-driven decision space in South Africa for over 13 years, I recognise the importance of building capacity and collaborations in South Africa, and in fact Africa, in the space of statistical science. This election allows me to be an ambassador from Africa for enriching our quantitative science in collaboration with international researchers in both domestic as well as international fora,” she said.

“We are pleased to welcome you as an elected member,” ISI President Professor John Bailer said. “Your interest and support in the ISI is important to us, and we are pleased that you have joined the distinguished group of elected members of the ISI. Congratulations on your election!”

Prof Das’s role within UP’s Department of Business Management entails conducting transdisciplinary research, teaching quantitative methods to PhD students, providing supervision to students working on their research projects, and developing a business analytics offering that will equip students with data-based decision tools.

The future of statistics in South Africa

Professor Salim Abdool Karim, chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on the COVID-19, shared insights on the pandemic’s effects in South Africa, and how the government is looking to respond using evidence-based approaches. His slides were underpinned by statistical concepts which some members of the public misinterpreted. Prof Das commented on this to emphasise the importance of using data in decision-making.

“This is an exemplary example where a team is working towards solving a problem that requires a variety of expertise – in this case those from the medical field working with statisticians and computer scientists, among others. Misinterpretation happens when one does not know some concepts – such as, say, the exponential distribution. But that is not the point – the point is that the team has multi-dimensional skills to inform decision-makers, based on which the decision-makers communicate the implications in the best possible way to the citizens at large to grasp for example, why some measures are being taken by the government at a certain time.”

Prof Das thinks officials should consider incorporating introductory statistics into the basic education syllabus. “Simple statistical concepts lend confidence to students when they see a data sheet, and allows them to interrogate it logically. Next-generation students and professionals cannot escape from data in whichever field they choose, be it in business or otherwise. They need to have the ability to query the data to some extent.” 

- Author Kaya Nocanda and Nonkululeko Kubeka Moyo

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