‘Statistics brings together maths and storytelling’

Research Lives: Prof Claire Gormley, UCD school of mathematics and statistics

Congratulations, you recently became one of the first women in Ireland to be a full professor in statistics
Thank you. My friend and colleague Prof Norma Bargary in the University of Limerick also became a professor of statistics recently, so we celebrated jointly. I'm hugely grateful for all the mentors who have helped me along the way and the opportunities I have had.

I also feel profound sadness that many capable women were born in different times, when these opportunities were not as available for them. I would like to hope that things are changing. We need more diverse voices, so research can be informed by many different views.

What sparked your interest in statistics?
I am from a small village called Desertmartin in south Co Derry, and growing up I loved reading. In school I enjoyed maths, too, the logic and organisation and reward of it.

For me, statistics brings together maths and storytelling. You are using statistical tools to look for clues that uncover the story in the data, and then telling that story in a way that others can see it.

What would you like people to know about statistics?
Statistics is the science of data and uncertainty. We estimate risks and probabilities and the range of uncertainty around those estimates. With so much data and uncertainty everywhere – think of Covid-19 and the figures we see every day – we can be like deer in headlights. But statistics lets us make sense of data. In an ideal world, people would be as comfortable and literate with statistics as we are with languages.

What do you love most about your research?
My research develops statistical tools to analyse data of different types. I love that it is so enriching, that I get to work in so many different and interesting areas. I have developed statistical methods to analyse data, from political science to orthopaedics to anxiety in adults.

With collaborators in UCD, I'm currently working on Alzheimer's disease, and separately on how to estimate what we have eaten based on biomarkers in our bodies. I'm also working with VistaMilk at Teagasc, on how measurements from a cow's milk can assess the cow's body condition, and how genomic data from livestock links to traits that are of interest for breeding. I am learning new things all the time, all the while using the core maths and statistics that I love.

How are you helping statistics researchers of the future?
I am UCD director of the Science Foundation Ireland Centre for Research Training in foundations of data science. It's a structured programme where PhD students first learn a blend of applied maths, statistics and machine learning, as well as transversal skills, and then specialise their research in a topic of interest.

The idea is to train researchers capable of working with the data of the future, whatever shape those data may take. Covid-19 has been tough on PhD students, and I miss being on campus with them. We usually spend time at a table with pen, paper and code and derive solutions together, and that doesn’t translate very well into Zoomworld.

Speaking of which, how have you found working from home during the pandemic?
We have three young boys, so it has been a juggle. But my husband and I are very lucky that we can work from home, and it has been great to all be at home together – the boys are delighted.