Assigned Reading: Grace Wahba

Grace Wahba

I. J. Schoenberg-Hilldale Professor of Statistics (Emerita)

Professor of Biostatistics and Medical Informatics

Professor of Computer Sciences

If you see the name Grace Wahba and think, “Huh, don’t know her — she must have arrived after my time on campus,” then you cannot remember any other current faculty member. Wahba has been a member of the UW’s faculty for more than half a century, and until last year, she was the longest-tenured member of the UW faculty. A specialist in machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, Wahba arrived in 1967, after earning her PhD in statistics at Stanford and spending a couple of years working at IBM. While there, she formulated Wahba’s problem, an algebraic calculation often used by satellite technicians.

When she landed her UW job, she says, “there were only 12 women on the tenure or tenure-track faculty.” She taught at UW–Madison until retiring in 2018, though she continued to guide doctoral candidates — her 39th and final graduated in May 2019. But she still comes to campus about once a week. “I am still involved with students,” she says. “I like to read the occasional hot paper in machine learning, often recommended by students or former students and collaborators. I’m keen on methodological research, which has been fruitfully applied to important questions in diverse fields — especially medical and climate research.”

My Assigned Reading Included:

The last course I taught, Statistics 860, was at the level of students beginning dissertation research. Students needed to have enough mathematics to be able to read the first 33 pages of [N. I.] Akhiezer and [I. M.] Glazman’s Theory of Linear Operators in Hilbert Spaces, volume one. Required reading included my book Spline Models for Observational Data and recent and classical papers and sections of relevant books on statistical model building and statistical machine learning.

I Like to Read:

For pleasure, I read Science and Scientific American and articles on recent research for the general reader in other areas, including astronomy and physics. I watch PBS NewsHour most nights when we don’t go out. I watch the occasional movie in Turner Classic Movies — anything with Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, song and dance as an antidote to today’s news.

The Book I Read Most Recently Was:

David Sedaris’s Calypso and Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein. Other favorite authors include Jumpha Lahiri, Oliver Sacks, and other writers concerned with memory.

I Always Wanted to Read (But Never Got Around To)

More Richie Davidson [UW psychology professor and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds]: I just got [Daniel] Goleman and Davidson’s Altered Traits and have just started to read it.

I Tell My Students: They are highly motivated and work hard. I tell them that they should be sure to get enough exercise and take real breaks in the summer and winter. I participate in the Senior Olympics in racewalking, and my husband, David Callan, and I enjoy Balkan and Israeli folk dancing, ballroom dancing, hiking, and local theater.