Fundamental and Foundational: Video Transcript

Cathie Spino (BS Mathematics and Statistics, Miami, 1983) [Research Associate Professor, Department of Biostatistics, University of Michigan's School of Public Health]: How I became a biostatistician and a research associate professor is because of some excellent mentoring and support from people throughout my life. I was a math major, and I was struggling with, like, "What the heck could I do with math?" Also I'm one of the first generation getting a college degree; my grandparents were immigrants from Italy, so the thought of like even getting, you know, a bachelor's degree was kind of like pretty, pretty wild.

I became attracted to mathematics and particularly statistics, I guess because it made sense. One of the things, at least in the beginning, you know, before you get too deep into things, it seems like there were right and wrong answers in math. And I also just loved the theory of it, it is kind of like playing games, trying to understand patterns. So that was really fun. But I think what turned me on to statistics is that I could see how it was solving problems, and I became a biostatistician, so when I went to do graduate work, it was in biostatistics, which is more statistics applied to the biological field, medicine, public health, psychology, those types of fields.

The degree that I received from Miami was absolutely critical in going on to graduate school. So you need to build foundations in terms of the academic material. But I think that actually, perhaps even more than the actual degree and what I learned in the classroom, is what I learned out of the classroom. The friendships, how to deal with people, meeting people that are coming from different types of backgrounds, different religions, different ways of viewing the world. You know, that, I think, is really part of what a college education should be.

One of the things that I think that is really important now that I have children who are going to college, one of the things that I look for, are they going to be taught by a professor or are they going to be taught by a graduate student? And I was a graduate student once, so being taught by a graduate student is not the end of the world, but I think one of the things that Miami is that I was a freshman and I had dinner with professors, professors knew me by my first name. I felt comfortable stopping in to office hours because I felt I was just not, you know, a cog in the machine, I was a person, as a freshman. I think that's a really unique, unique type of experience, and I think that that is really fundamental and foundational.

A liberal arts background, I think is absolutely critical. So I was taking an honors English class, and I was a freshman at Dorsey, and my English class was at Bachelor, and the professor was, he was kind of a difficult, unusual type of guy. But one of the things that he really valued was thinking critically. It was Walden Pond, Thoreau's Walden Pond, and we had to write a paper. I got an A on that paper, and what he said is that he disagreed pretty completely with what I wrote, but what I wrote was, I was able to support it with what was written, and so the thinking was right. I ran across from Bachelor to Dorsey, and I called my mother to tell her that I got an A in class, and the reason was because some professor appreciated critical thinking, even if it was in opposition with what he thought. A very, very valuable lesson to me.

The ratio of professor to student is still really, really important, and again, helping to develop those relationships and the ability to be mentored by professors, is really, really important, and I think that makes Miami a very special place.

[October 2015]