Wanted: Problem Solvers

 Image of a pair of wrecked cars from an accident.

Back in high school, Jenny Guarino always enjoyed the challenge of math. When the problems got almost too tough, she studied harder. When she still couldn’t figure it out, she asked her teachers. And when she could have been fine with a B, she went for an A.

Fast Forward to today and Jenny is in a high-paying transportation career that’s saving lives.

Jenny is a statistician for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), a government agency on a mission to bring fatalities on American roads down to zero. It’s a seemingly impossible challenge. But Jenny has learned through experience that challenges are nothing but problems to be solved.

Jenny Guarino, U.S. Department of Transportation.

Click a button to watch an interview with Jenny Guarino:

As a statistician, Jenny looks for trends in data. In this case, she uses crash data, which she retrieves from the Federal Accident Reporting System (FARS) database. Compiled from police reports, the FARS contains information on every reported vehicle accident on U.S. soil involving one or more fatality. This data might include weather conditions, time of day, location, or drug and alcohol involvement. There are so many variables—like jigsaw pieces—that Jenny needs to piece together to form a bigger picture.

What are data trends? They are the true stories that data reveals. It’s data that has shown that almost one out of three traffic fatalities involve drunk driving. That texting while driving is one of the leading causes of death among teen drivers. That children belong in car seats, and that seatbelts save lives exponentially more often than they do harm.

To discover trends in the data and to get the data to tell its story, Jenny relies on math as a tool. Equations are good at telling stories. For example, if X number of severe crashes occur in rainy or snowy conditions, but only Z number of severe crashes occur in dry weather, then severe crashes are N times more likely to occur during inclement weather.

But Jenny knows numbers can’t always be trusted. Sometimes the stories they tell are misleading. If Jenny finds out that nine out of ten drivers were speeding on those snowy or wet roads, then suddenly weather isn’t the main culprit anymore, and she must add speeding to the equation. The best statisticians are good at separating what looks like fact from what really is fact.

It’s Jenny’s use of logic to analyze a problem that makes her a good statistician. She’s a problem solver. This skill is just as important as how well she knows algebra or calculus. This skill is what enables Jenny to look further than what the numbers have shown her thus far. It is the same skill that allows a detective to throw out false leads to get to the real truth.

If you want to be a statistician (by the way, it’s listed as one of America’s top jobs for 2016), you’ll need to take a lot of math and statistics. But if you’re at all like Jenny, you’ll be up for the challenge. Even more importantly though, you will need to develop your detective skills. These include the ability to focus on a problem, to examine it from all angles, to look for clues but not let them lead you down a false path, and to dig deeper even when the solution seems obvious. These skills—like math—will come over time, as your Statistics 101 course becomes, say, Applied Research 400.

For Jenny, the effort has paid off. The discoveries of statisticians like Jenny have influenced laws and policies that are saving lives on U.S. roads, whether it’s a seatbelt law, a safer speed limit, or harsher penalties for driving under the influence. But there’s always work to be done. These include the ability to focus on a problem, to examine it from all angles, to look for clues but not let them lead you down a false path, and to dig deeper even when the solution seems obvious. When you are up to the challenge, the numbers will be waiting for you to reveal their story.

Aaron Mack
Fast Forward: Volume 3 Issue 2 - Highway