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Statistician gets top Australian honor

February 8, 2013

Peter Hall

Peter Hall has joint appointments at the University of Melbourne and, since 2006, at the UC Davis Department of Statistics. (Courtesy photo)

Peter Hall, distinguished professor of statistics at UC Davis, has been named an officer of the Order of the Australia for his distinguished contributions to the field of statistics worldwide. The honor is among the highest awarded by the Australian government.

"It's unexpected, and it's very nice to have the recognition, especially for the statistical community in Australia," Hall said of the Jan. 26 announcement.

Hall is a professor at the University of Melbourne and, since 2006, has held a 25 percent appointment at the UC Davis Department of Statistics. He spends one quarter a year, typically spring quarter, in Davis and teaches a proportional full load over a two-year cycle.

Hans-Georg Müller, chair of the department, said that Hall's work had provided the theoretical support for major new methods in statistics, especially non-parametric statistics and bootstrap analysis. Hall has received numerous honors in recognition of his work and is listed as the top-ranked author in the entire field of statistics by Microsoft Academic Search.

Many are familiar with statistical data that falls into a "bell curve" with a peak in the middle and tails at both ends, and data that look like that can be analyzed with conventional, or parametric statistics. But you cannot always assume that data fall into such a simple pattern. From clinical drug trials to DNA sequencing to astronomical surveys, scientists are generating huge amounts of large and complex data.

To analyze such data, non-parametric statistics, including bootstrap analysis and other methods that require few assumptions and typically involve a lot of computation, are often attractive options, Müller said. They are well suited to studying very large and high-dimensional sets of data, such as gene expression patterns, financial markets and Internet search results.

Bootstrap analysis, for example, involves repeatedly sampling the original sample to arrive at statistical conclusions. It came into use in the 1970s and allows scientists to analyze a set of data without having to make many assumptions about it.

"Bootstrap was a major breakthrough in statistics," Müller said. Hall wrote a classic book on the method, published in 1992, and teaches bootstrap analysis in his Davis courses.

Data used to be collected by humans with clipboards. Now a lot of data collection is done by machines, creating very large sample sizes where each subject may have many different variables associated with it, Hall said.

"The sheer volume of data is an issue," he said.

After completing his bachelor's degree at the University of Sydney, Hall received his doctorate, or D. Phil., from Oxford University in 1976. He first worked at the University of Melbourne and then, from 1978 to 2006, at the Australian National University in Canberra. In 2006, he moved back to Melbourne, and also took up the fractional appointment at UC Davis in the 2005-06 academic year.

"I have considered moving to the U.S., but I find it hard to leave Australia," Hall said. He first visited Davis in 1988, and collaborated over several years with Müller and Professor Jane-Ling Wang before being offered the fractional appointment.

"I have to say I'm very grateful to UC Davis for their flexibility, it has worked very well for me," Hall said.

"Davis has a lot going for it," Hall said. "The department is very strong, with good relationships among the people. I like Davis and the Californian outlook. The climate is good, and in Davis I don't need a car to get around."

The citation also noted Hall's leadership of advisory boards and international organizations. He is a past president of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics and of the Bernoulli Society for Mathematical Statistics and Probability, and is currently chairing a national review of the mathematical sciences in Australia.

The Order of Australia was instituted in 1975, replacing the British system of awards and honors.

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