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Nerds of Mizzou

What's the probability of finding a female nerd statistician?

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photo by Shane Epping
  • Published: June 22, 2009
Nancy Flourney

MU Professor of Statistics Nancy Flournoy is an international expert in adaptive design. She also has been known to shatter the occasional glass ceiling.

Nancy Flournoy works in a man’s world. She’s a statistician and number cruncher who develops new ways of understanding data. 

It took years of work and the example of a female role model for Flournoy to feel at ease in a field dominated by men. She once had the privilege of attending a talk by a trailblazer for women in statistics and admired the speaker’s sense of strength.

“She stood confidently at the front of a large auditorium, smoking her cigar,” Flournoy says. “I immediately took up cigar smoking as a way to exhibit my seriousness.”

It wasn’t the first time Flournoy had modified her behavior to appear less like the young blonde woman she was, and although the cigar smoking didn’t endure, the comfort level did.

Gender aside, Flournoy is arguably the world’s leading expert in adaptive design, according to William F. Rosenberger, statistics chair at George Mason University.

She is known internationally for advancements in designing statistical models for clinical studies with information that develops and changes over time. Her algorithms can be used to find more effective treatments with fewer patients and give more study participants the better treatment.

Flournoy’s biostatistics work — in data management, experimental design, clinical trial coordination and statistical analysis — with the bone-marrow transplantation team of E. Donnall Thomas played a significant role in research that earned Thomas a Nobel Prize. Flournoy co-wrote approximately 60 papers on the subject.

Variable attributes

The most vivid memory Professor Nancy Flournoy has of her early career was being the only female statistician at UCLA’s Regional Medical Program, where, she says, she was fired for being an “uppity” woman.

“I never could keep my mouth shut. I remember agonizing over whether to speak up,” she says. (Note: Flournoy says UCLA tried to rehire her one year later. She declined the offer.)

Flournoy told that story to 1,000 statisticians at a Joint Statistical Meetings assembly after receiving the F.N. David Award, one of the nation’s most distinguished awards in statistics. It’s named after the cigar-smoking woman Flournoy hoped to emulate.

A committee of presidents of all the statistical societies of North America selected Flournoy based on her research as well as her leadership in multidisciplinary collaboration, education and service, particularly as a role model to women.

Spurious relationships

Nancy Flourney portrait

Illustration of Nancy Flournoy by Tyler Bergholz.

“Nerd. I can’t think of a nicer thing to be called,” Flournoy says but admits that junior high school was difficult when fellow students would grab her papers and pass them around for copying.

Flournoy’s mom reacted by seeking a spot for her in a private school with strict entrance requirements, and Flournoy scored the highest math grade ever among enrolling students. But because she flunked the English grammar exam, she had to meet with an administrator before being accepted. During the meeting, he asked Flournoy the square root of three, which she promptly recited in five figures (1.7320).

“They let me in. I guess I was weird enough,” Flournoy says. But she was required to study daily after school with an English tutor. 

Oblivious in high school to the parties that were happening around her, Flournoy’s favorite pastime was working algebra problems. College was more of the same. She scored into the highest math level and spent huge amounts of time working every problem in the book — for fun.

Modeling techniques

As a researcher, Flournoy became interested in adaptive experimental design and sequential analysis in studies to make the best use of changing information, which, she believed, could produce better results.

“Without doing the learning first, drug companies settle for mediocre therapies rather than finding what’s best,” she says. “And when the data are sequential, not to use this feature is wasteful, most significantly of human and animal life.”

Flournoy herself helped spread those ideas through lectures, symposia and workshops internationally. Now many statisticians work on adaptive design projects.

Flournoy’s work in bone marrow transplantation and in experimental design has earned many national and international honors. She is one of a few statistical scientists elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and she is a fellow of the World Academy of Arts and Science, a select group of scientists and artists with paramount contributions, such as Jonas Salk.

At that time, members were added only when a vacancy was created by the death of another member, Rosenberger says of the coveted honor.

Population profiling 

Until recently, national meetings of the premier academic statistics society were populated mostly with men, but that, too, is changing, largely as a result of mentors such as Flournoy. 

As the first female program director of statistics at the National Science Foundation from 1986 to 1988, Flournoy found ways to encourage previously unfunded researchers, who tended to be women, minorities and beginners.

When she left the agency, women were submitting proposals in proportion to their numbers in the field.

For two decades Flournoy co-directed Pathways to the Future, an annual conference for young female faculty members.   

“She is the leading advocate in the profession for new investigators, women and minorities and researchers in smaller universities,” Rosenberger says. “These people often do not have a way to be heard; they don’t have a seat at the table of the statistics elite. She has been their voice.” 

Under Flournoy’s leadership as department chair, MU's Department of Statistics counts one of the strongest female representations worldwide; six of 17 tenure-track faculty members are women. “Last I knew, it was the maximum,” she says.

Data mining for fun   

“Weekends are just good days to work,” says Flournoy, who does squeeze in recreational hikes that occasionally necessitate the help of a Sherpa guide. Among her conquests is the Himalayan base camp of Mount Anapurna, a hike from 3,000 to more than 13,000 feet. This summer she’ll spend four days hiking in the Pyrenees and a week in Washington’s Cascade Mountains.

In another international project, she and her husband, statistics Assistant Teaching Professor Leonard Hearne, are remodeling an old farmhouse in Croatia as a second home. Although Flournoy is used to challenges, this fixer-upper by the sea is a doozey.

“We bought half a county to get a 350-year-old ruin,” Flournoy says.

All that remains of the place are its 2.5-foot-deep stonewalls, and building anything in Croatia involves miles of red tape. Her explanation? “We didn’t want a place where you sit and twiddle your thumbs.”

What, do you suppose, are the chances of that?

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Last updated: June 6, 2013