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Recent statistics grad applies skills
to pracitcal problems at Health Center
February 15, 1999

When Laurie Rau was a senior majoring in statistics last year, she wanted two things: practical experience in the field and credit toward her degree.

An internship would be the ideal solution. But at that time, the Department of Statistics had none in place. But her adviser, Nalini Ravishanker, an associate professor, and Dipak Dey, professor and head of the department, worked with the Health Center to create an internship for her, the first undergraduate internship in the department. She worked with Joseph Sheehan, a professor of community medicine and health care in the division of biostatistics.

Rau's internship proved invaluable. Right after graduating in December, she was hired by the Health Center to work with Stephen Walsh, an assistant professor of community medicine and health care - this time as a full-time employee.

Dey says offering internships is good for the program. "This should attract more undergraduate majors in statistics," he says.

Sheehan speaks highly of Rau and another student from UConn, Ramon Garcia, who is an intern with him this semester.

"Laurie and Ramon have been well educated in the fine aspects of statistics and statistical models, and what we offer is a chance for them to apply those abstract models to real-world data," Sheehan says. "They are enthusiastic, very capable and they can do things that it would take another student a long time to figure out, simply because they have such a solid educational background."

Rau worked with Sheehan on a grant to study measures of disability through the National Arthritis Foundation. Using "fairly sophisticated statistical models," they tried to extract more information from the data than is currently possible using existing methods, Sheehan says.

Sheehan and Garcia are continuing the research.

Rau, a math aficionado, says of the internship, "It was a really great learning experience, and it eased me into the working world." She worked 10 hours a week and earned three credits.

She says if it weren't for the internship, she probably wouldn't have landed the job at the Health Center. "Networking is an important part of the job process," she says. Like many other students, Rau would otherwise have begun her job search through the campus interview process, "but then I wouldn't have had any practical experience,"she says.

Students who graduate with a major in statistics have found employment in industries involved in health care, pharmaceuticals and high technology.

Rau's internship also confirmed her desire to follow a career path in statistics. "If you don't like going to your internship, then maybe that's not the field for you," she says. "It's a real eye-opener."

Today, Rau works closely with Walsh on two of his research projects.

One project, funded by the Connecticut Chapter of the Lupus Foundation of America. examines lupus, a disease that is relatively rare, its cause unknown. Walsh and Rau are trying to find out whether environmental factors contribute to the occurrence of lupus.

The other project explores whether there is a higher incidence of autoimmune diseases among school teachers than in other occupations. This may help solve the mystery of what may be causing autoimmune diseases.

Rau enjoys the real-world application of her work. "We're looking for answers," she says. "It's exciting."

Sherry Fisher