This summer, Professor Emerita Jessica Utts of UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) was recognized with two prestigious awards, highlighting her tremendous contributions related to the field of statistics.
George Cobb Lifetime Achievement Award
In June, Utts attended the 2021 U.S. Conference On Teaching Statistics (USCOTS). As she participated in the online event, she was unaware that a clock and tribute book were hidden behind a chair in her home office. She learned of the items only after the Consortium for the Advancement of Undergraduate Statistics Education (CAUSE) announced her as the recipient of the 2021 George Cobb Lifetime Achievement Award in Statistics Education.
The award is presented biennially at USCOTS to an individual who has made lasting contributions with a broad impact, and as outlined in her nomination letter, “Jessica’s work in the statistics education community is second to none.”
Utts has authored two bestselling textbooks for introductory statistics: Seeing Through Statistics, first published in 1996 and now in its fourth edition, and Mind on Statistics (with Robert Heckard), first published in 2001 and is now in its sixth edition. She has held leadership roles that influence both collegiate and high school curriculum and has been a “passionate advocate for statistical literacy for all,” publishing papers that outline what educated citizens should know about statistics. Even in retirement, she continues to be in demand as a speaker, with her most recent theme being Data Science Ethics.
“I was, of course, honored to find out that I had won. But the most astounding part was the collection of letters that comprised the nomination packet, and the assortment of photos, testimonials and memories in the tribute book,” says Utts. “I will be forever grateful to the nominators for the work they did in creating those documents (and amazed that I didn’t find out they were doing it!).”
According to the written testimonials, Utts has “changed the face of statistics education” and is “internationally respected, forward thinking, visionary.” One person spoke of her “influence on K-12 and collegiate education in the United States,” while another noted that “as the first female statistician I had ever met, you have been a role model for me.” Yet another summarized her work as follows: “Over the past forty years you have demonstrated excellence in teaching a variety of forward-looking statistics courses, innovated in creative ways, published a number of foundational articles and textbooks that continue to shape the field, and engaged in professional service to help foment change.”
As the nominating letter concludes, “We marvel at what she has accomplished, and she has done it all with humor, grace, and an enthusiasm that is contagious.”
The Dinsdale Award
One month after receiving the George Cobb Award, on July 27, 2021, Utts received the Dinsdale Award from the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE). She learned of the honor at SSE-PA Connections 2021, a joint online conference between the SSE and the Parapsychological Association (PA).
Established in 1992, the award — named after Tim Dinsdale — recognizes “significant contributions to the expansion of human understanding through the study of unexplained phenomena.” It aims to reward senior scholars who have significantly contributed to our “understanding of anomalous physical, biological, and psychological events in the spirit of meticulous research, exemplary methodology, and proper scholarly attitude.”
Utts received the award “for significant contributions in the rigorous application of statistical methods to the study of psi [shorthand for parapsychology], including remote perception, presentiment, and distant healing.”
“I was delighted to have my work recognized by receiving the Dinsdale Award, and was particularly pleased that the awardee immediately preceding me was Hal Puthoff, who first introduced me to this research area,” says Utts, who met Puthoff many years ago at an SEE conference. Puthoff was the director of the government-funded research program studying psychic abilities and their possible use for intelligence gathering. He was looking for a statistical consultant for a program based out of SRI International. Utts became a consultant for the program and still collaborates with parapsychology researchers to this day. “About half of my research publications are related to my work in parapsychology,” she says, noting that her most prominent work was a report she put together for Congress. “My work was a part of the full report, evaluating the government work on psychic abilities, commonly referred to by one of its code names, Stargate,” she says. “That report led to appearances on CNN, Larry King Live, and lots of other media outlets.”
The Dinsdale Award appropriately spotlights how Utts leveraged her Ph.D. work in statistics and her undergraduate study of both math and psychology to push the boundaries of mainstream science and advance the field of parapsychology — all while continuing to advance statistics education for students everywhere.
— Shani Murray