Seize the Opportunities: Video Transcript

Dr. Jill Montaquila (MS Statistics, Miami 1991) [Associate Director of Westat's Statistical Staff]: My role at Westat is that I am the associate director of the statistics group. The statistics group is a group of about 65-70 statisticians. Our company has about 2,000 permanent employees and we do survey research. Our clients are mainly federal government, state governments, some local government clients — we do some work with foundations — and it's primarily focused on survey research.

I chose Miami because I actually had an undergrad professor — my advisor as an undergrad — who sort of steered me in this direction gently. He brought me down to Miami during my junior and senior years as an undergrad to attend the Mathematics Association of America conference — regional conference here, it may had been a state conference — and I liked the campus, I liked the department. And he sort of nudged me in this direction saying it would probably be a good-sized program for me and he was absolutely right. It was a great program for me to be at the time.

Definitely I feel Miami prepared me technically for what I do now. It gave me the statistical background, the technical background, and skills that I need for my job right now. But also it prepared me in terms of learning how to work with others. When I was at Miami, the department was pretty tight knit, and I learned to work on my own but also to work with others as a group and to persevere. I definitely was challenged when I was here and learning to stick with it and work hard to solve a problem was an important skill that has helped me in my career.

Professors who had a substantial impact on me at Miami — I would say two come to mind in particular. Dr. Bolger who taught Stats 664 when I was here the first semester…well, he taught 664 and 665 first and second semester — stat theory course. And Dr. Murphree taught the applied probability course. Both had a lasting impact on me and I can elaborate if you'd like.

Dr. Bolger very early in my days here at Miami gave me encouragement to stick with it. I struggled a bit during my first few weeks here ... had a few challenging assignments and really felt I wasn't performing the way a Masters student probably should perform. And really I was doubting myself and Dr. Bolger at just the right time stopped by my office and sort of gave me a pep talk and said he knew the program that I had come from as an undergrad and he knew I was going to be just fine and right about Thanksgiving everything would start to click and, sure enough about Thanksgiving, everything did start to click. And I think that, had he not given me that pep talk at just that time, things could have been different because I really was doubting myself. So his positive attitude really affected me and just his teaching style I learned a lot from him as well.

Dr. Murphree taught probably the most challenging course that I took when I was here. And I learned through her course and her assignments about perseverance and sticking with a problem and really trying different things, not giving up. In applied probability often you could spend hours on a problem and then you would see the little trick that made it work. Often it was an identity that just needed to be applied and once you saw that trick, there's the solution. But it took those hours of perseverance of trying different things and really thinking about the problem to get to the point where you got the right solution. So I think that course and Dr. Murphree's shepherding us through that really taught me a lot about not giving up and sticking with a problem.

The most satisfying aspect of the work that I do now, I think is probably the contributions to the field that I feel we're able to make. Westat does a lot sort of on the frontlines of survey research and so I feel like a lot of the work that I do is making a contribution to the field and helping the field of survey research understand better ways of doing things. So that's gratifying for me to sort of feel like we are out on the frontlines and learning a lot about the field.

The advice that I would give to incoming students at Miami — I think the biggest thing I would say is to look for opportunities, both here and once they graduate. I feel I've really benefited from a lot of opportunities that I've had, and I was certainly fortunate to have been offered those opportunities. But had I not recognized them and pursued them, I think things could be different. So really be on the lookout for those opportunities, and seize them.

Ten years from now I'll probably be doing what I'm doing today. I love the work that I do; I really couldn't imagine doing something else at this point. I'd like to continue doing the work that I am doing. I'd like to do more in the way of mentoring; that's something that has always been of interest to me and I feel now, speaking of opportunities, speaking of I'm getting more opportunities to do things like that. So I would hope that 10 years from now I'd be able to feel like I've done more to contribute to the careers of younger statisticians.

I feel it's important to engage with students at Miami to give them an idea of what it's like out there in the 'real world' so to speak. You know when you're a full-time student, you're sort of in a bubble to some extent, focusing on the academics which you need to do as a student. But having exposure to people who have been out in the field working for some time I think can be beneficial to the students to first of all give them some inspiration and say yes you can make a career of this and it can be an enjoyable career but also to teach them some of the lessons we learn along the way.

[April 2013]