Years of research leads to mountains of data. Wading through that data, organizing and making sense of it, can be an intimidating task.
It’s a task that Christine Spinka is happy help with.
Spinka serves as the consulting statistician for the entire University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. This is Spinka’s second stint with MU, after serving as an assistant professor and instructor in the Department of Statistics for nearly 10 years.
Spinka officially joined CAFNR in June 2018.
“Individuals bring me the results of years’ worth of work, and in a day or two, we can begin to answer some of their questions,” she said. “I get to see the end of the story each day – and that’s the most awesome part of my job. I really feel that I have the best job in the college.”“Individuals bring me the results of years’ worth of work, and in a day or two, we can begin to answer some of their questions. I get to see the end of the story each day – and that’s the most awesome part of my job. I really feel that I have the best job in the college.”
Spinka’s official title in CAFNR is assistant teaching professor in the Division of Plant Sciences. While her academic home is plant sciences, Spinka works with individuals from all six of CAFNR’s divisions.
“I’m here to help all of our divisions,” Spinka said. “I know there might be some confusion with my appointment in a single division, but I have been and will be working with people from across the college.”
Spinka said she has already worked on a variety of research projects with faculty and graduate students from each of the divisions within CAFNR.
“In my first appointment with someone, I like to learn about the person I’m meeting with and what they’re doing,” Spinka said. “I ask what their research is about and what their questions and needs are. Some just want to plug the data in and get the results. Others like to understand each step of the program that’s being written. It’s important to understand those needs before we begin working.”
For graduate students, especially those who are interested in publishing, Spinka said that it’s important to look at similar work.
“Statistics isn’t a right answer or wrong answer kind of discipline,” she said. “There are often two or more ways to look at a problem. I tell students to think of the journals that they’re targeting and pull some articles. We can then look at the statistical methods that were used by authors who did similar research, and talk about why they selected those analyses.”
Spinka was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. She earned her bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and mathematics from Vanderbilt University. She earned her master’s and Ph.D. in statistics from Texas A&M University.
“I actually wanted to be a geneticist growing up and Vanderbilt had a great program for that,” Spinka said. “After finding out that I would have to practically live in the lab as a geneticist, I figured out that I didn’t really want to do that. Statistics was closely related to what I was doing, so I made the shift.
“Vanderbilt didn’t have a statistics department, though. I agreed to go to Texas A&M without even seeing the school. They had a great applied statistics program and I was able to work with their outstanding faculty.”
After finishing her Ph.D., Spinka joined MU. She had interactions with CAFNR students during her time with the Department of Statistics, teaching a course that many CAFNR students took. In between her stints at MU, Spinka worked for the state of Missouri. She worked for both the Missouri Department of Corrections and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, where she performed research and statistical analysis of corrections, immunizations and electronic health record data.“Statistics isn’t a right answer or wrong answer kind of discipline. There are often two or more ways to look at a problem. I tell students to think of the journals that they’re targeting and pull some articles. Find some articles that feature commonalities with your research and we can talk about what they did and why they did it.”
Along with the statistical work that Spinka is doing, there is an intent for Spinka to teach one course each semester.
“There’s a group right now that is looking at CAFNR’s most urgent needs,” she said. “The idea would be to develop a graduate student course that works with those students and their research. The other course could be more related to short courses, where we would go over the software or how to design experiments.”
Spinka said that individuals in CAFNR can reach out to her through a phone call (573-882-4484) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Her office is located at 2-42 Agriculture Building.
“Shoot me an email or give me a call if you want to chat about your project and what you’re looking to do,” Spinka said. “Email is probably the easiest way to track me down, as I am in a lot of meetings.
“A big part of doing research in statistics is creating novel methodologies that may or may not be needed to address real-world problems. I really prefer what I am doing in CAFNR; here I get to work with researchers to analyze their data and advance their science. I feel like I am having a much greater positive impact in this role.”