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Marcela Alfaro-Córdoba: New Faculty

Graduate Institution: Iowa State University, M.S., North Carolina State University, Ph.D.

Undergraduate Institution: Universidad de Costa Rica

Department: Statistics

Marcela Alfaro-Córdoba

“It’s exciting to introduce the topic of statistics to people that have no prior knowledge or experience with the field. My goal is to motivate students to keep learning about the field of statistics.”

This spring, Baskin School of Engineering welcomes teaching assistant professor of statistics Marcela Alfaro-Córdoba. Marcela is teaching an introductory statistics course for spring quarter 2021, where she hopes to pique students’ interest in the field of statistics. Marcela’s current research focuses on developing novel statistical methods to answer scientific questions related to the environment, with special emphasis on climate models, biophysics, and spectrophotometry. She is an advocate of collaborating across disciplines to further research exploration and advance teaching methods. 

When did your interest in the field of statistics begin?

I started off as an engineering major at the Universidad de Costa Rica. I took a variety of first year courses and one of them included an introduction to statistics course. This statistics course was at one of the satellite campuses which took over three hours one way just to get there. The journey was awful, especially going from the mountains to the coast where it was much more humid, but the course was so interesting to me that it made it all worth it. I found that statistics was a really good way to be involved in many disciplines and you get to help answer pressing, real-world questions. That next year, I switched my major to statistics. I then got my master’s in statistics at Iowa State University and then received my Ph.D. at North Carolina State University. 

What areas of statistics are you most interested in?

I mostly do applied research. I am working on using my experience in consulting and interdisciplinary collaborations to teach new statisticians how to communicate across disciplines and how to go about answering large-scale data questions. In terms of my applications right now, I’m interested in environmental statistical research, including spatiotemporal methods to analyze output from climate models, and using functional data analysis techniques with spectrophotometric measurements.

What research are you currently working on?

I am currently working with my alma mater Universidad de Costa Rica on a research project that studies microspectrophotometry data, which is reflection data from normally objects but in our case is focused on insects. We want to find out how insects perceive the color in other insect species in order to understand how they interact with others in their environment.

What are you teaching this quarter?

I’m teaching Statistics 5, an introductory statistics course. It’s nice to go back to the basics after teaching upper division statistics courses in Costa Rica. It’s exciting to introduce the topic of statistics to people that have no prior knowledge or experience with the field. My goal is to motivate students to keep learning about the field of statistics, especially because this class includes a lot of material in a short amount of time. One project I will have students do towards the end of the quarter is apply a statistical problem to an area of interest. I’m hoping this will increase engagement.

In the future, I’d like to create a new class in the Statistics Department that would be a consulting course for the master’s in statistics program. Students would get the opportunity to choose who they work with on their research projects, whether that would be collaborating with other students at the university or collaborating with industry professionals. Working with others across disciplines would teach important communication skills. Another portion of the class would focus on the ethicality of data in statistics. 

What advice do you have for Baskin Engineering students?

Engage with different people outside of your area of study. It will improve your communication skills and open up your perspective to new ideas. It can be scary to get out of your comfort zone but by putting yourself out there, through volunteer work or participating in a student organization, it will be a positive and rewarding experience. 

Since spring quarter 2021 is your first quarter here at UCSC, what else would you like the UCSC community to know about you? 

I’ve been working with a group from RDA (Research Data Alliance) and CODATA (Committee on Data for Science and Technology) to establish a summer class for early career researchers from lower- to middle-income countries. The class curriculum involves teaching early career researchers basic skills to manage and analyze data for quantitative research. I would like to continue working on this project at UC Santa Cruz, and will eventually be able to hire graduate students to help teach courses like this or develop new courses. It’s a great opportunity for students to collaborate with researchers in other countries and reduce the gap between lower- and middle-income countries and industrialized countries. 

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