ACEMS Leader Awarded Australian Laureate Fellowship

She’s joked in the past about jumping on the “Big Data Bandwagon.” But now ACEMS Deputy Director Kerrie Mengersen is going to do more than just jump on the bandwagon – she’s going to drive it.

The Australian Research Council (ARC) just awarded Professor Mengersen an Australian Laureate Fellowship, and with it, a $2.4-million grant to study the use of statistics for making decisions in this world of big data.

“Big Data is now seen by almost every organisation as a potential benefit, but also a real challenge, since the big question that goes with big data is ‘now that we have it, what do we do with it?’” said Mengersen. “We have the ability to learn so much from these data, if we only have the tools to crack it open and see the stories it can tell.”

Mengersen is a Deputy Director and Chief Investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers (ACEMS), and a professor of statistics at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane.

Her particular interest in the field deals with the use of Bayesian statistics to study big data. The goal of her fellowship is to actually make what she calls a “step-change” in the knowledge of Bayesian Statistics, which has been around for more than two centuries.

“Bayesian statistics is the original way of doing statistics, but its focus has traditionally been on smaller datasets,” she said. “The challenge now is to ‘scale up’ Bayesian statistics, and this will require new models, new analytic tools and new ways of making inferences and decisions.”

Professor Mengersen’s project will then focus on translating that new knowledge to real-world challenges in health, the environment and industry – from mapping cancer to monitoring the health of the Great Barrier Reef.

Professor Mengersen says her Fellowship will fit well with the work being done by ACEMS.

“ACEMS has a broad reach across maths, stats and machine learning for both big and little data. Bayesian statistical methods for big data is one small wedge of the ACEMS research pie,” she said. “This fellowship will seek to enlarge this web, so it will have the great advantage of leveraging from the substantial capability of ACEMS while giving back to ACEMS a comprehensive program of research in this particular important area.”

Professor Mengersen also hopes the new big data statistical analysts trained through her project will create much needed capacity at national and international levels.

“These three areas – statistical research, training and translation – are all vitally important and if I can contribute meaningfully to these, then I will count that as an accomplishment,” she said.

Professor Mengersen is one of 15 people being awarded ARC Laureate Fellowships in 2015.