Interview With Chris Barr


Chris Barr

Chris Barr is an assistant professor of biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. He moved to Boston after getting his Ph.D. at UCLA and then doing a postdoc at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Chris has done important work in environmental biostatistics and is also the co-founder of OpenIntro, a very cool open-source (and free!) educational resource for statistics.  

 Which term applies to you: data scientist/statistician/analyst?

I’m a “statistician” by training. One day, I hope to graduate to “scientist”. The distinction, in my mind, is that a scientist can bring real insight to a tough problem, even when the circumstances take them far beyond their training.

 Statisticians get a head start on becoming scientists. Like chemists and economists and all the rest, we were trained to think hard as independent researchers. Unlike other specialists, however, we are given the opportunity, from a young age, to see all types of different problems posed from a wide range of perspectives.

How did you get into statistics/data science (e.g. your history)?

I studied economics in college, and I had planned to pursue a doctorate in the same field. One day a senior professor of statistics asked me about my future, and in response to my stated ambition, said: “Whatever an economist can do, a statistician can do better.” I started looking at graduate programs in statistics and noticed UCLA’s curriculum. It was equal parts theory, application, and computing, and that sounded like how I wanted to spend my next few years. I couldn’t have been luckier. The program and the people were fantastic.

What is the problem currently driving you?

I’m working on so many projects, it’s difficult to single out just one. Our work on smoking bans (joint with Diez, Wang, Samet, and Dominici) has been super exciting. It is a great example about how careful modeling can really make a big difference. I’m also soloing a methods paper on residual analysis for point process models that is bolstered by a simple idea from physics. When I’m not working on research, I spend as much time as I can on OpenIntro.

What is your favorite paper/idea you have had? Why?

 I get excited about a lot of the problems and ideas. I like the small teams (one, two, or three authors) that generally take on theory and methods problems; I also like the long stretches of thinking time that go along with those papers. That said, big science papers, where I get to team up with smart folks from disciplines and destinations far and wide, really get me fired up. Last, but not least, I really value the work we do on open source education and reproducible research. That work probably has the greatest potential for introducing me to people, internationally and in small local communities, that I’d never know otherwise.

Who were really good mentors to you? What were the qualities that really helped you?

Identifying key mentors is such a tough challenge, so I’ll adhere to a self-imposed constraint by picking just one: Rick Schoenberg. Rick was my doctoral advisor, and has probably had the single greatest impact on my understanding of what it means to be a scientist and colleague. I could tell you a dozen stories about the simple kindness and encouragement that Rick offered. Most importantly, Rick was positive and professional in every interaction we ever had. He was diligent, but relaxed. He offered structure and autonomy. He was all the things a student needs, and none of the things that make students want to read those xkcd comics. Now that I’m starting to make my own way, I’m grateful to Rick for his continuing friendship and collaboration.

I know you asked about mentors, but if I could mention somebody who, even though not my mentor, has taught me a ton, it would be David Diez. David was my classmate at UCLA and colleague at Harvard. We are also cofounders of OpenIntro. David is probably the hardest working person I know. He is also the most patient and clear thinking. These qualities, like Rick’s, are often hard to find in oneself and can never be too abundant.

 What is OpenIntro?

OpenIntro is part of the growing movement in open source education. Our goal, with the help of community involvement, is to improve the quality and reduce the cost of educational materials at the introductory level. Founded by two statisticians (Diez, Barr), our early activities have generated a full length textbook (OpenIntro Statistics: Diez, Barr, Cetinkaya-Rundel) that is available for free in PDF and at cost ($9.02) in paperback. People can also use to manage their course materials for free, whether they are using our book or not. The software, developed almost entire by David Diez, makes it easy for people to post lecture notes, assignments, and other resources. Additionally, it gives people access to our online question bank and quiz utility. Last but not least, we are sponsoring a student project competition. The first round will be this semester, and interested people can visit for additional information. We are little fish, but with the help of our friends ( and involvement from the community, we hope to do a good thing.

How did you get the idea for OpenIntro?


 Regarding the book and webpage - David and I had both started writing a book on our own; David was keen on an introductory text, and I was working on one about statistical computing. We each realized that trying to solo a textbook while finishing a PhD was nearly impossible, so we teamed up. As the project began to grow, we were very lucky to be joined by Mine Cetinkaya-Rundel, who became our co-author on the text and has since played a big role in developing the kinds of teaching supplements that instructors find so useful (labs and lecture notes to name a few). Working with the people at OpenIntro has been a blast, and a bucket full of nights and weekends later, here we are!

 Regarding making everything free - David and I started the OpenIntro project during the peak of the global financial crisis. With kids going to college while their parents’ house was being foreclosed, it seemed timely to help out the best way we knew how. Three years later, as I write this, the daily news is running headline stories about the Occupy Wall Street movement featuring hard times for young people in America and around the world. Maybe “free” will always be timely.

For More Information

Check out Chris’ webpage, his really nice publications including this one on the public health benefits of cap and trade, and the OpenIntro project website. Keep your eye open for the paper on cigarette bans Chris mentions in the interview, it is sure to be good. 

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