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Ed. Magazine

Lecture Hall: Assistant Professor Katherine Masyn

Katherine Masyn

[caption id="attachment_3130" align="alignleft" width="234" caption="Photo by Elena Gormley"]Assistant Professor Katherine Masyn[/caption]

She fell in love with math at an early age. She eventually discovered statistics while in college and was even more enamored. But it was actually a veterinary school that introduced Katherine Masyn to something that would take her through three Ph.D. programs to the real passion of her life: latent variable models. At the time, she was a doctoral student in the school of engineering at Cornell University studying something she wasn’t really interested in — operations research. At the suggestion of a friend who knew she missed working with data, she took an elective methods course at the university’s vet school on epidemiology, the study of health and illness patterns. “We talked about study design and implications for answering research questions,” Masyn says. “I loved it.” The professor asked if she had ever heard of biostatistics — an area of statistics focused on biology and public health. She hadn’t, but her interest was piqued. This took her to the University of California–Berkeley, where, in another epidemiology course, she learned about latent variable models. “I thought, ‘This is fantastic!’ Something clicked,” she says. “This is how I think about the world. This is awesome.” Now in her second year teaching at the Ed School after four years teaching at the University of California–Davis, Masyn, with her dog Byron by her side, spoke to Ed. in February about “stattoos,” magic chairs, and why even her mom has a hard time describing what she does.

Your mom has spent the last 10 years practicing a phrase to explain what you do. What’s her phrase? These days she leads with, “My daughter is a professor at Harvard.” Then asked what I do, she says “social research quantitative methodologist.” I asked her what she says if someone wants to know what that actually means and she said no one ever goes there.

How does the hand-painted chair in your office tie into this? My students at Davis gave it to me when I left for Harvard. It made me cry. When students came to meet with me in my office, they would sit in a chair across from my desk. They realized that when they sat in this chair, they understood everything. But when they got up and left, it all went away. It was like we had never met. So they started calling it Masyn’s Magic Chair.

Initially you wanted to be a high school math teacher, but that changed after you took a statistics course. Statistics is all about modeling uncertainty in the world. With math, there’s a right or wrong answer and a Truth with a capital “T.” With statistics, even if you believe there is a single truth, you can’t necessarily derive it theoretically.

You need to collect data and make inferences based on it. I loved it and I decided I wanted to do more of that. How did you first learn about latent variable models? I had to do a reading with latent variable analysis, which looked at the effect of quality of life issues and aging populations, trying to get at how to measure and quantify “quality of life.”

And the latent variable part? The idea is that you can’t measure it directly. There isn’t a quality-oflife- o’meter. Quality of life is a latent variable; it’s not directly observed. What you can observe is what you think are manifestations of this underlying variable. You can ask people about their ease or difficulty doing certain activities of daily living. You can get reports from family members. No one measure is going to give us a perfect read, but ask this range of questions and do this range of observations and maybe, if you combine all of this information, you’ll get a better idea of this underlying thing that we can’t directly observe.

Speaking of what can be observed, tell me about your “stattoos.” Since math and stats are my passion, and since my deep connection to my work derives from the fact that I instinctively and reflexively see my world as one giant statistical model, it’s no surprise that my creative forms of expression often take some sort of math/stat form. I got each of my tattoos and piercings to commemorate important events and transitions, to reconnect with myself after a difficult time, or to remind myself of challenges and achievements. For example, I got my first stattoo when I graduated from college with my B.S. in mathematics. My other stattoo is in memory of my dad. He died eight years ago on March 14, which is “Pi Day,” hence the Pi tattoo on my neck. I already have a stattoo planned for if/when I get tenure.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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