Biostatistics teaching team receives ASA education award for innovative excellence

August 21, 2014

Maya Petersen and Laura Balzer with awardsAssistant professor Maya Petersen and biostatistics doctoral student Laura Balzer have been awarded the 2014 American Statistical Association’s (ASA) Causality in Statistics Education Award. They were selected for their innovative course, Introduction to Causal Interference (PH252D).

This award is presented annually to an individual or team that does the most to enhance the teaching and learning of causal inference in introductory statistics courses. Petersen’s course was recognized for its clear lectures, detailed discussion assignments, and innovative labs and homework assignments using R. According to the ASA press release, “Petersen and Balzer have prepared a new generation of scientists, who have acquired the tools of modern causal analysis and are equipped to tackle each step of the causal roadmap. The course material, which is available at www.ucbbiostat.com, provides other institutes an educational resource of foundational material.”

“Developing and teaching this course has been a real labor of love for me since I joined the UC Berkeley faculty,” says Petersen. “I’ve always aimed to make it accessible and beneficial for students from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds, including those with limited formal mathematical training.”

Petersen credits her colleague and mentor, Professor Mark van der Laan, for his influence on the course’s content and presentation since its inception. And she feels lucky to be working with Balzer on the course. “Laura is an absolutely brilliant teacher and colleague,” she says. “Her phenomenal applied computing labs and homework assignments—complete with superheroes and pirates—have taken the course to a whole new level.”

The award was established in 2013 and founded by Judea Pearl to highlight the growing importance of introducing core elements of causal inference into undergraduate and lower-division graduate classes in statistics. Pearl—who is a longtime ASA member, recipient of the 2012 Turing Award, and professor of computer science and statistics at the University of California, Los Angeles—donated $15,000 of his Turing Award prize to fund the award through 2015. As the honorees, Peterson and Balzer each received $5,000 and a plaque Sunday evening during a special awards ceremony at the 2014 Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM 2014) in Boston.

The American Statistical Association is the world’s largest community of statisticians and the second-oldest continuously operating professional society in the United States. Its members serve in industry, government and academia in more than 90 countries, advancing research and promoting sound statistical practice to inform public policy and improve human welfare.