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Talking with … Chaitra Nagaraja

Interviews | Apr 13, 2018 |

Chaitra NagarajaEvery installment of “Talking with…” introduces you to a different Gabelli School faculty member, administrator, or staff member. This week, find out more about Chaitra Nagaraja, associate professor of strategy and statistics.

What are you currently researching?
I am writing a book, tentatively titled Measuring Society, on measures such as inequality, poverty, and unemployment. The challenge is to present these technical concepts without using any equations or specialized jargon. Reading the news, I found that many people didn’t know what governmental statistical organizations like the Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics actually do with their time. How and why did these measures develop? What can they tell us? What can’t they tell us? My hope is that this book will make commonly discussed measures more clear to the average person and make the case that they are important.

Can people use this research to help society as a whole?
The U.S. government publishes much of its data online for the benefit of the public: Local governments, businesses, researchers, and curious people can all learn about the people who live and work here. We can read how many people lived in each region, the instructions given to the census takers on how to do their jobs—they wandered from house to house on horseback in 1790—and even what people thought of the results and how those judgments changed over time. It’s fascinating stuff, and we are fortunate to have such records.

From these statistical records, we can learn a lot about our country’s history, good and bad. What we as a country decide to measure and how we decide to measure it is partly a result of politics, fears, and culture, not just statistical considerations.

Is there anything that surprised you about your previous work at the U.S. Census Bureau?
I didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of the effort required to design and implement surveys for entire nations until I spent some time at the Census Bureau. I worked in the research division, which acted a bit like an internal consulting group. We would help other divisions on various survey-related projects; for example, I worked on the American Community Survey. While I learned a lot from the other statisticians, I was also lucky to be able to learn from ethnographers, translators, and psychometricians. It takes all of these types of people to put together a good survey.

A side note: Everyone, please fill out your census forms in 2020!

What do you find to be the most challenging statistics concept for students to grasp?
Statistics is not a set of mechanical computations. Many students like the idea of Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, and you’re done. In order to be a good statistician, however, that is simply not enough. You need to make a lot of decisions, be able to justify those decisions, and be willing to learn a lot about the context of your problem.


Fun questions

Favorite television show growing up:
Are You Being Served?

Favorite television show now:
My favorite show was Psych, but that ended years ago. My current favorite is Elementary. What can I say? I have a fondness for mysteries.

Would you rather visit Hawaii or Alaska?
Alaska. New York can be very hectic and, in my head, Alaska seems quiet by comparison.

Classical, country, or rock music:
Classical music. My favorite composer is Felix Mendelssohn.

Would you rather have a fluke snow day in July or an 85-degree day in January?
As I have a short commute to work and live in an apartment, I probably can enjoy snow more than most. That said, I have a slight preference for the 85-degree day in January; it’s always nice to have a break from cold weather.

Best day trip to take in the spring:
Going to see the cherry blossoms among all of the monuments in Washington D.C. I know New York has nice cherry blossoms as well.


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