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John J. Deely


Professor Emeritus, University of Canterbury Department of Mathematics and Statistics

M.S. Mathematics 1958, Ph.D. Statistics 1965

Continuing Lecturer, Purdue University Department of Statistics

Written by: Shannon Knapp, Ph.D. candidate in Statistics 

Perhaps no other statistics professor is as well known on the Purdue campus as is Dr. John Deely. Deely teaches STAT 113: Statistics and Society, an introductory statistics course taken largely by Liberal Arts majors. With 500 to 600 students per semester, Deely estimates he has taught roughly 8,000 students since he began teaching the course in the year 2000. "They hate numbers. They hate data. The challenge is can you somehow give such students a little appreciation in statistical reasoning in spite of their hatred of numbers. Can you make it interesting enough? I'm always looking for funny ways, ways in which people abuse statistics." For example, asking whether men or women are safer drivers. "I try to get material that's very up-to-date and descriptive of where statistics are used in our society," such as using plots of oil production and gas prices during the study of regression. But this is only Deely's latest professional incarnation.

Deely started his professional life as an electrical engineer working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA. He saw in his supervisor the embodiment of what an engineer should be and realized, "I was not cut out to be an engineer." A friend who was working on a doctorate in speech at Purdue recommended Deely go back to school and get a master's degree. "In what?" Deely recalls asking. His friend replied, "What do you like?" Deely's favorite subject was Math, so he came to Purdue to complete a master's degree in Mathematics. Deely then taught mathematics at the Purdue University Ft. Wayne Extension. It was there that Deely became aware of the field of statistics. "Boy, that would really be something to think about!" So Deely returned to Purdue to pursue a doctorate in statistics under the supervision of Professor Shanti S. Gupta.

After his Ph.D., Deely went to work for Sandia Corporation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "At that time, mathematics was the queen of the sciences. People were thinking about getting a man on the moon. To get people to come [to Sandia] they offered the ability to do their own work." Sandia offered Deely the opportunity to spend half his time doing his own research if he would spend the other half helping others. During his time at Sandia, Deely recalls being part of a small, congenial research group, much like at a university. His door was always open and yet he did get to spend at least half his time on his own research. But after a few years, the increasing security at Sandia became oppressive and, coupled with the Vietnam-Era political climate in the nation, a change was needed. The idea of leaving the country was discussed with friends. One friend suggested New Zealand. Deely recalls asking, "Do they have universities in New Zealand?" With the advice of newly acquired friends, Deely contacted the University of Canterbury, and was offered a position within two weeks of his inquiry.

At that time, there was no tenure-track system in New Zealand. Deely was offered a permanent position (with the functional equivalent of tenure) at the rank of Senior Lecturer. He was promoted to Reader after one year and was promoted to Professor and appointed Chair of Statistics two years after that. "I was in charge of all statistical teaching and research within the Department of Mathematics. During my 28 years in that position, the program expanded from one course with one hundred students and one statistician (me) to five staff with over eight hundred students in eight statistics courses. Eight Ph.D's and sixteen M.Sc's (all requiring a thesis) were produced under my direction." Deely's research has primarily been in the area of empirical Bayes and Bayesian methods. "I like the interaction with quantitative people in other disciplines and my associations have been in a wide variety of fields including engineering, biological sciences, agriculture, and business. I am also active in the areas of statistical decision theory, data analysis and sample surveys with particular interest in appropriate and efficient use of prior information in these areas."

When Deely was 64 years old, the law in New Zealand required retirement at the age of 65. Although that law would be rescinded the year Deely turned 65, he was still going to be forced to retire. At that time, Mary Ellen Bock, the head of the Department of Statistics at Purdue, knew she would have an opening to fill and invited Deely to return to Purdue as a Visiting Professor. For three years, Deely taught service courses, including STAT 301 and STAT 503 as well as STAT 529, Bayesian Applied Decision Theory. Since the year 2000, Deely has been a Continuing Lecturer here at Purdue, primarily teaching STAT 113, but continuing to teach STAT 529 during the summer. Deely also continues to be "quite active in research collaboration with several colleagues around the world. These papers include survey sampling, sequential design, selection and ranking methods, reliability testing, and clinical trials."

Compared to when he was a student here at Purdue over 40 years ago, Deely notes that the department is more applied now, "Applications are emphasized. When I was here mathematical statistics was the emphasis." Because Statistics was part of the Mathematics department during Deely's student years, he recalls having to pass exams in complex variables, real analysis, linear algebra, and probability theory. But not everything has changed in the department since he was a student here; Deely notes "there is still that wonderful camaraderie among the students."

John J. Deely received the Statistics Outstanding Alumni Award from Purdue University, Department of Statistics in 2007.


To read more Alumni Profiles, please visit our Alumni Profiles archive.

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