Deborah Nolan

Deborah Nolan

Deborah Nolan
 Professor Deborah Nolan

Deborah (Deb) Nolan is a Professor of Statistics and the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society at UC Berkeley where she holds the Zaffaroni Family Chair in Undergraduate Education. Nolan’s work has contributed to the advancement of statistics and data science education as evidenced in the four books she has authored highlighting the practice of teaching statistics with case studies and hands-on problem solving. Nolan is a fellow of the American Statistical Association and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics. She has served as the Statistics Department Chair for five years and Associate Dean for Math and Physical Sciences for nine years. 

Nolan’s academic career has been filled with a number of firsts. As an undergraduate, she attended Vassar College in the early days of the campus becoming co-ed.

“It was an exciting time to be at Vassar because men were first admitted four years previously and they were going to graduate that year,” she said in a previous interview with the Journal of Statistics Education. “There was a lot of buzz in the news and on campus about it. There was a strong sense on the campus of the importance of women’s education and people wondered how this might change now that Vassar was co-ed. I found it exciting to be a student in this environment.” 

After completing her Ph.D. in Statistics at Yale University, Nolan began her teaching career at UC Berkeley. It was not until after a few years into her role as an assistant professor that she learned she was the first female professor hired in Statistics since Betty Scott was hired in 1951.

“For me, the transition from being a student to an assistant professor was not easy. My colleagues at Berkeley were always supportive of me and my career, but being the only woman in the department was difficult,” she said. “The connections that colleagues make over the tennis court and soccer field didn’t happen for me. I felt this so keenly that I wrote an article on the topic, called “Women in Academe: Mentors Matter” (Nolan 1990). That’s why I co-founded the IMS New Researchers Meeting in Statistics and Probability in 1993.”

Nolan was awarded the Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award for excellence in teaching and is noted for working with and encouraging all students in STEM. She helped design the Data Science Major and develop and teach Principles and Techniques of Data Science (Data 100). She has created and led programs to encourage students to pursue their education in STEM, including the Summer Math Institute (1991-97), Explorations in Statistics Research (2005-12), CalTeach (2006-20), and Berkeley Unboxing Data Science (started in 2020). Her pedagogical approach connects research, practice, and education, and she is co-author of four textbooks: Stat Labs, Teaching Statistics, Data Science in R, and Communicating with Data. 

After teaching for over 30 years, Nolan is now focusing on preparing the next generation of students for a successful undergraduate career at Berkeley. 

“One piece of advice I would offer someone interested in statistics and the prospect of teaching is that statistics is a field in which it takes a long time to develop expertise and to be a good teacher they need to work at developing this expertise,” she said. “I would encourage them to be lifelong learners in the field, to try their hand at data analysis, and learn how experts approach statistical problems.”

~ Lauren Pitcher

Reference: All quotes were taken from Nolan’s previous interview with the Journal of Statistics Education, 2015.