Commencement 2005: Grad’s Statistical Modeling Applies to Alcohol Consumption in Fairfax County

Posted: May 20, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Tomorrow, May 21, George Mason will hold its 38th annual Commencement at 10 a.m. in the Patriot Center. This week, the Daily Mason Gazette highlights a few of the university’s many outstanding graduates.

By Robin Herron

What if Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) stores in Fairfax County, Va., were spread more evenly throughout the county rather than being clustered in certain areas? What if alcohol was less available in high-crime areas? What if access to alcohol was more difficult for populations at risk for abuse?

These “what-if” questions are the motivation behind the “Alcohol Ecology” model that Yasmin H. Said developed as the basis of her dissertation for the PhD in Computational Sciences and Informatics, which she will receive this week.

“She created an associated web site, www.alcoholecology.com, which indicates she has gone well beyond just theory to a very practical implementation,” says Peter Becker, associate dean for graduate studies in the School of Computational Sciences (SCS). “Her research has broad societal implications and demonstrates the kind of progress that can be made when computational science techniques are applied to the ‘traditional’ social sciences.”

Yasmin Said
Yasmin Said
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Estimating that she spent thousands of hours on the Alcohol Ecology, Said says the hardest part was collecting data from public agencies. “Communicating with people was the most difficult,” she says. “I sent about 2,000 e-mails to get the information. Some people were really helpful, like one person at Inova’s [Fairfax Hospital] trauma center. Others closed doors on me. At one point, I had to get the governor’s office, a legislator, and the tax commissioner involved.”

Still, Said managed to collect the data and develop the model in record time, having joined Mason less than two years ago. The pace and success she’s had with this project, however, stand in stark contrast to her prior academic experiences, going back to when she was an undergraduate trying to earn a degree in biochemistry at Trinity College. The courses she needed to finish were not available her senior year, and rather than lose a year, she decided to major in pure mathematics instead.

For graduate school, she planned to merge her interest in medicine and mathematics to earn a degree in statistics at American University (AU). But a series of unfortunate circumstances left her stranded with unfinished dissertations. Her first advisor, the only professor knowledgeable in her field, left the university abruptly. She switched programs. Then another advisor died suddenly from a heart attack. She kept studying, however, all the while working full-time as a high school mathematics teacher at private schools in Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Va., to pay for her education.

After four years at AU, she collected an MA in computer systems in 2003. She submitted her dissertation, a statistical analysis of star measurements that filled seven books, to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). And despite the difficulties she encountered in graduate school, she decided to go on to earn a PhD. She looked for a program where she could apply her previous course work and finish quickly—and found it at George Mason. “When I talked with Dr. Becker, he was so gracious. He really tried to help me, carefully describing for me the procedures and processes at Mason.”

Said initially took classes at the Prince William Campus, where the bioinformatics program is based, as well as at Fairfax. But the commute between her home in Rockville, Md., the two campuses, and her job in Alexandria became too much. So she decided to focus at Fairfax, working with Edward Wegman, Bernard J. Dunn Professor of Information Technology and Applied Statistics and director of the Center for Computational Statistics, whom she calls “the walking Google.” When she met Wegman, he was doing alcohol research in connection with the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “We clicked right away. He’s an extremely incredible individual.”

With Wegman’s guidance, everything fell into place. He steered her toward the research that would eventually become her dissertation. Said passed her comprehensive exams last summer, earning distinction in all subject areas. She also earned distinction in her orals and maintained a 4.0 GPA in her classes. She wrote a chapter, “On Genetic Algorithms and Their Applications,” in a book titled Data Mining and Data Visualization edited by C. R. Rao, Wegman, and Jeffrey Solka.

Wegman clearly admires Said’s work and her work ethic. He says, “My favorite Yasmin story is from the fall semester 2004. I was scheduled to teach CSI 876, an intensive mathematics course. I had carefully handwritten my lecture notes and was planning to use a document camera to project them. Yasmin saw them and said she would be happy to type them up for me. I told her it was page after page of intricate mathematical notation and that she would have to use a technical word processor like LaTeX. I asked her if she knew LaTeX, and she said no, but she would learn it. I thought maybe my notes would be typed by the end of the semester. She showed up a week later with 61 pages of perfectly typed lecture notes.”

Said defended her dissertation two weeks ago and was back last week to resume work on the Alcohol Ecology and to look for funding for further research. Having quit her job last December to focus on her dissertation full-time, she’s now looking ahead.

At the American Statistical Association’s Joint Statistical Meetings conference in August, she’ll participate in three lectures, one on modeling alcohol ecology, another on nonparametric statistical methods, and a third on regression analysis on a NOAA data set. At the Annual Meeting of the Interface of Computing and Statistics in June, she will give an invited talk on her Alcohol Ecology model. She was recently nominated as a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society and is a member of eight other professional societies.

In addition to “trying to get a real job”—teaching and doing research at a university or doing consulting work—she plans to write a book on the history of statistics for Elsevier publishing.

And last but not least, with Wegman’s help, Said is applying for a patent through George Mason for the Alcohol Ecology.

Write to at