Krista Gile came to statistics through her interest in sociology. And engineering. And math. Inspired by an introduction to sociology class in college, she realized she wanted her work to be more about people and less about things. She now develops statistical methodology for social and behavioral science research.
Growing up in Shrewsbury, Vermont, outside Rutland, Gile was always good at math. In middle and high school she participated in math contests that took her from statewide to national competitions, but she always knew she didn’t want to do pure abstract math for a living. Her father was an entrepreneur with an engineering background, so Gile decided to study electrical engineering in college. But she also took a sociology class that ended up changing her life.
“I had a crazy professor, a self-proclaimed anarchist. He would say, ‘you have an A. Would you like to like to give two points to that person with an 89 so they can get an A too?’ It was all about turning upside down our preconceived notions of the world, questioning the shape of the social world.” This professor introduced her to science and technology studies.
In college, she had a school co-op at a light control company. Then one day on her lunch break she heard a report about a US Supreme Court decision on the radio and was suddenly inspired, as she puts it, by “people whose work shaped the social world I lived in. I was no longer as excited by the ‘things’ aspect of my work in engineering.” She applied to grad school for a PhD degree in science and technology studies, through which she was able to study history and philosophy as well as sociology. Going from an engineering undergraduate program to this one was tough. “I had grad classes in history and philosophy with people who had master’s in those fields,” she says. “I had a BA and had never written a 10-page research paper.”
Discouraged, she left with her master’s and pursued work in social services research, volunteered, and took classes at a local university. She considered a PhD in sociology but wasn’t sure. Then she took a class in sociological theory and, doing well, told the professor she was considering a doctorate and was beginning to think about studying statistics instead of sociology. He was very encouraging. Along with her work interactions with a consulting statistician, this sealed the deal. The University of Washington in Seattle had a center for statistics and social sciences, so she went there.
After a postdoctoral position at Oxford University, Gile found a position at UMass Amherst. “The department was involved in a new cluster in computational social science,” she says. “It was like the position was written for me.”
So after some wandering, she found her spot. “I enjoy getting to work with students, to teach and mentor,” Gile says. “I enjoy service work. I like getting deep into research with grad students. And I like working with undergrads. I love creating and being in communities where people are authentically present and feel welcomed and valued. It is wonderful when people are able to grow, potentially even in ways they didn't think they could. I try to meet students where they are, valuing their place in the learning process. When students authentically sit with me and say, ‘can you help me?’ it creates an opening for growth—regardless of where they are in terms of the class material. It’s amazing to watch people engage with the material and grow.”
“Choosing what you do with your college years is a balance between passion and pragmatism. It’s important to follow what you love and are excited about but also to build for what you want to do with the rest of your life after college. It’s a springboard you don't usually get to replicate. It’s a time to build a platform from which to accomplish what comes next. College is a complicated and very personal balancing project.”
“When I advise undergraduates I try to talk with them about the big picture. Exploring. Is there a way you can get an internship to look at x? Can you shadow someone? I suggest they gather information, to ask themselves, ‘what would life be like if I follow this path?’ I try to get them thinking about ways to translate what they’re learning now into what comes after.”
Statistics is the ultimately useful field, she says. “Every field that has data can and should use statistics. From particle physics, to public health, to sports management, data are driving more and more of our insights and decisions. There's a great need to take large amounts of data and figure out what's signal and what’s noise.”
Looking back, she says, she thought she knew exactly what her life path would be. “I thought I’d be an engineer and take over my dad's company. I didn't. But I didn't need to know my life path. I just needed to know the next step.”