Carnegie Mellon University
January 31, 2020

Rebecca Nugent Receives Fienberg Professorship

By Stacy Kish

Stacy Kish
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • 412-268-9309

Carnegie Mellon University’s Rebecca Nugent received the Stephen E. and Joyce Fienberg Professorship in Statistics and Data Science at a ceremony during the fall semester.

“Rebecca is a force of nature, an innovative thinker, and a builder.” said Richard Scheines, Bess Family Dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “This professorship, the first CMU has ever given to a teaching track faculty member, honors not only Rebecca, but also the wonderful legacy of Steve and Joyce Fienberg. Steve was an indefatigable and consequential statistician, and the applied work he pushed in our college is very much aligned with how Rebecca approaches her teaching, research and service to the field.”

Nugent is associate department head and co-director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Statistics & Data Science. Since joining the department in 2006, she has been a driving force that has helped make CMU one of the fastest-growing and top-ranked undergraduate statistics and data science programs in the country.

nugent-professorship-chair_300x300.jpg“Rebecca brings amazing skill and energy to building new things,” said Christopher Genovese, head of the Department of Statistics & Data Science. “Whether establishing a nationally recognized undergraduate program, developing new methodologies for clustering and classification, or creating a program in which students and faculty can work on real problems with industry partners, Rebecca continually pushes the boundaries of what is possible for Statistics and Data Science.”

Nugent has received numerous teaching awards, including the American Statistical Association Waller Award for Innovation in Statistics Education and CMU’s William H. and Frances S. Ryan Award for Meritorious Teaching. She is the founding director of the Statistics & Data Science Corporate Capstone program, an experiential learning initiative that matches groups of faculty and students with data science problems in corporate, nonprofit and government organizations.

In addition, she has helped to improve diversity and inclusion in her field. Nugent launched the annual Women in Data Science conference for the Pittsburgh region in 2018 and accompanies Dietrich College students to the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. She  also has played key roles in supporting her department’s sports analytics initiatives and creating a summer workshop for graduate students across the university to sharpen their statistical skills.

Nugent has worked extensively in clustering and classification methodology with an emphasis on high-dimensional, big data problems. Her current research focus is the development and deployment of low-barrier data analysis platforms that allow for adaptive instruction and the study of data science as a science.

“This is such an honor. I’m so happy to be part of continuing to recognize the incredible contributions that both Steve and Joyce made to the Carnegie Mellon community, ranging from ground-breaking methodological and interdisciplinary research in the social sciences to deeply impactful mentoring and support for students, faculty, colleagues, neighbors and family,” Nugent said. “My time with the Fienbergs was meaningful, both personally and professionally, and I hope that the establishment of this chair will help inspire others to follow in their footsteps as researchers, educators, community leaders and role models.”

Stephen E. Fienberg joined CMU’s Statistics & Data Science Department in 1980. For 36 years, he developed statistical applications to influence science and public policy from human rights and privacy to forensics and census taking. He shared his passion for statistics by training and mentoring the next generation of statisticians and data scientists. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the Royal Society of Canada, American Statistical Association, Institute of Mathematical Statistics and the International Society for Bayesian Analysis. He also served as dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (now Dietrich College) from 1987 to 1991.  

Fienberg was joined in life by his wife, Joyce, who received her bachelor’s degree in social psychology from the University of Toronto. In 1982, she joined the research group headed by Gaea Leinhardt at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center. She contributed to the group by examining ways teachers interact with their students and the skills needed to be an effective teacher.

Stephen E. Fienberg passed away on Dec. 14, 2016, following a long battle with cancer. The Dietrich College community was devastated to lose Joyce less than two years later in the Tree of Life tragedy. The professorship was named in grateful appreciation for the Fienberg’s long-standing relationship with and contribution to the CMU community.