Gayla Olbricht

Written by: Allison Cummins, M.S. candidate in Statistics

Gayla Olbricht

Gayla Olbricht is a Statistics PhD student at Purdue University. She grew up in Thayer, a small town in southern Missouri. While attending high school, Gayla enjoyed the challenges and rewards of studying mathematics which led her to earn a B.S. degree in Mathematics from Missouri State University. During her time at Missouri State, she took her first statistics class and found that she really enjoyed its applied nature. She also liked the idea of using her mathematical skills to solve problems in a wide variety of fields. Her professor, Dr. George Matthew, explained the vast opportunities available for a career in the field of statistics. Having an interest already in the biological sciences, Gayla felt that applied statistics was a career where she could combine her interests.

When applying to graduate schools for statistics, Gayla looked at the school’s rank and research interests of the faculty, wanting to attend a school known for its excellent academic reputation with opportunities to pursue her interests in biological applications of statistics. After doing research on several schools and having a great visit to Purdue where she had the opportunity to talk to faculty and students, she knew Purdue was where she wanted to pursue her graduate studies.

There are many opportunities available both within the Department of Statistics and Purdue to broaden one’s experiences in statistics, and Gayla has taken advantage of as many of these as possible. She believes it is through such experiences that she continues to learn the different aspects and broad applicability of statistics. During her tenure at Purdue, she has been involved in many aspects of both teaching and consulting available to her within the Department.

One such opportunity was StatCom, a pro bono graduate-student-led volunteer consulting group that offers statistical consulting services to non-profit and government organizations in the community. Gayla joined StatCom during the summer of her first year at Purdue. Her first project was working with a group of students designing and analyzing a survey for the West Lafayette city government. In working on this project, she found it was an excellent opportunity to see how the concepts she was learning in her statistics courses could be directly implemented in the community. It was also a great way to meet and work with other graduate students.

After that project, she continued her involvement in StatCom, moving into leadership roles, serving a term as Director, and being involved in the effort to expand StatCom to other colleges and universities. The latter work enabled her to travel to the Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM), as well as other colleges and universities, giving presentations about StatCom through a Member Initiatives Grant from the American Statistical Association. She found her experiences with StatCom to be beneficial, and enjoyed the fact that through theses experiences she was able to apply her statistical knowledge while helping the local community. Gayla encourages any student to become involved in a StatCom project during their time at Purdue.

Through her work with StatCom, Gayla initiated an outreach component (StatCom P-12 Outreach) in which graduate students develop and implement interactive statistics activities for presentation in K-12 classrooms and at public events.

Gayla’s involvement with StatCom P-12 Outreach, increased her interest in sharing statistics with pre-college students, leading to her participation as a fellow in the Graduate Teaching Fellows program, a K-12 Education program run through the National Science Foundation and Purdue University’s Discovery Learning Center. The program pairs graduate students in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) disciplines with a middle school science or math classroom where fellows implement inquiry-based activities. Gayla served as a visiting scientist to Wea Ridge Middle School, a local middle school, for one year. One of the highlights of that experience was a project she worked on with the classroom teacher, Mrs. Jennifer Wilson, and another graduate fellow, Jody Riskowski. The project, which was based on the 100 People project, has students design and analyze a survey containing questions they developed to ask other students in their school. The final product was a video featuring the survey results by using percentage calculations to envision their middle school as a school of 100 people.

One of Gayla’s favorite classes at Purdue University was STAT 549, Quantitative Trait Loci (QTL) Mapping in Experimental Populations. She took this course because she was interested in learning about statistical applications in the area of genetics. It was one of the first courses with a group project where she had the opportunity to work with a biologist analyzing real data. Her experience in this course ultimately strengthened her interest in studying statistical genetics.

Gayla now works with Professors Rebecca W. Doerge and Bruce A. Craig on a research topic in the area of statistical genomics and bioinformatics. Specifically, she is working on the development of models for data generated from a microarray-based technology called a tiling array. Tiling arrays offer the opportunity to study many different biological phenomena such as gene expression and epigenetic modifications (heritable changes in genome function that occur without a change in DNA sequence) such as DNA methylation and histone modifications. Statistical methods differ depending on the biological application of the tiling array. In her research, she incorporates bioinformatic information in the development of mixed models and hidden Markov models for analyzing gene expression and DNA methylation tiling array data. She recently presented part of her work at the Kansas State University Conference on Applied Statistics in Agriculture, April 19-21, 2009. Upon graduation, Gayla plans to obtain a position at a university or research institution where she will continue research in statistical genetics and bioinformatics.

Gayla has found the Purdue Department of Statistics to be a great place to grow as a statistician and researcher. The program is challenging and requires hard work, but is very stimulating and rewarding. She found the Department’s atmosphere to be very conducive to her success, particularly her interactions with the excellent faculty, staff, and students with whom she has made many lasting connections. To any incoming student, she would say, "Be willing to work hard, ask questions, make connections with faculty and other students, and take advantage of opportunities and you will find the Purdue Department of Statistics to be an exceptionally rewarding place for pursing graduate study in statistics."

September 2009

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