Thomas Nielson Profile

May,  2011


Written by Kyle Bemis (M.S. program, Statistics)

A symphony of shouts and a chorus of cheers rock the arena. The decibel-crushing encouragement of their most dedicated fans bolsters the Purdue players on the court below, allowing the adrenaline to flow full force for a victory. The ones making the most noise are the members of the Paint Crew, one of the largest student organizations on campus, led by the young statistician Thomas Nielsen, an undergraduate in the Department of Statistics, and the organization's current president.

The image of Thomas before the vociferous crowd of 1,779 Paint Crew members on game day is not the dry, spreadsheet-like picture many people may imagine when they think of a statistician. To Thomas, however, an interest in statistics has always been strongly intertwined with his interest in sports. "I've always been kind of a numbers guy," says Thomas, "and sports have always been my main obsession."

Thomas Nielsen (wearing white cap in each of the pictures below) assumes his usual spot at the front of the Paint Crew.
Thomas Nielsen and the Paint Crew 1
Thomas Nielsen and the Paint Crew 2
Thomas Nielsen and the Paint Crew 3

Evidence for the correlation between his interest in sports and his interest in statistics became apparent to Thomas in high school. In his AP statistics course, Thomas received "the greatest school assignment ever": to predict an NCAA bracket based solely on a statistical formula, developed using the techniques learned in class, to assign probabilities to a team's winning. (As evidence for his budding skills in applied statistics, his bracket won the class competition.) Later, for the same class, Thomas investigated whether there exists any statistically significant evidence for clutch hitting in baseball. To this day, Thomas still relies on a modified version of his original NCAA bracket formula, further informed by a Bayesian model for each team's probability of winning that he found online. "Whenever I'm watching a game," he says, "I'm always thinking in terms of numbers."

Thomas' interest in statistics is not limited to predicting wins and losses, however, and statistics has proven itself to be useful in an every-day situation for the Paint Crew as well. The seats for groups of students in the Paint Crew are decided on game day by lottery. One day a mistake was made in the lottery after many groups had already been assigned their seats, and Thomas was able to use his knowledge of probability to correct for the error and give the remaining groups an equal chance at the best seats.

When Thomas first came to Purdue four years ago, his brother was already involved in the Paint Crew (named for coach Matt Painter), and with his strong interest in sports, he found it natural to get involved with the group as well. After helping with organizing activities on game day during his freshman year, Thomas was elected the Paint Crew's treasurer in his sophomore year, the vice president in his junior year, and finally, the president in his senior year. Thomas says the Paint Crew has become the main part of his Purdue life, and he has dedicated himself to leading the crew in their goal of being the loudest supporters of Purdue's Boilermakers, and making Mackey arena the most intimidating court to play on for Purdue's rivals. Thomas will pursue a Masters degree in the Department of Statistics starting Fall 2011.

May 2011