We are pleased to welcome Layla Parast—Associate Professor in the Department of Statistics and Data Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, mother, and CrossFit competitor—to the team of IMS Bulletin contributing editors, with her new column, Lines from Layla.
At my oral exam during my PhD, one of my dissertation committee members asked me: “How are you going to save the world?” I balked at the question. I had no intention of saving the world, I was just trying to survive a PhD. While I tried and failed to answer the question, I thankfully still passed my oral exam. And over a decade later, I can’t help but continually come back to that question. How am I saving the world?
When I was applying for jobs after graduate school, I told my advisor that my goal in finding a job was “to be happy”. That was it. Graduate school was hard. It was humbling. I was exhausted. I didn’t want to be a famous statistician, I didn’t want to worry about tenure, I didn’t want to be stressed about publishing in top journals or getting a grant. I just wanted to be happy. And be somewhere with no snow.
I was ecstatic about being offered a job at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research institution in Santa Monica, CA. I was attracted to RAND because when I interviewed, people seemed happy, and they seemed to genuinely love their work. In contrast, when I interviewed for an academic position, people did not seem to love their job.
I loved working at RAND. It was the perfect fit for me. I learned so much and was surrounded by intelligent, supportive people. Nearly all of my projects were led by women. My work focused on healthcare policy. I would hear news stories on TV and on NPR and say out loud – that’s my project! It was incredibly fulfilling.
However, for obvious reasons, in 2020, everything changed. In mid-March 2020 I was in New York City for Spring Break with my husband and kids. We had refused to change our plans in the midst of early COVID fears. In a strange way, it was a perfect time to visit the city with kids. The subways and playgrounds were deserted, the restaurants had no waitlists, and the weather was beautiful. While I constantly reminded my kids to wash their hands, at one point on the subway I turned around to see my two-year-old daughter licking the seat of the subway car.
When we returned to L.A., my state of mind quickly went from this is fine, it’s going to pass to I’m going to die, we are all going to die, this is the end. Like much of the world, we hunkered down at home and I was terrified. I finally ended up calming myself down by making peace with the fact that I might die. I had done everything I wanted to do in life: I married the love of my life, had a beautiful family, I traveled the world, I published some papers, I got a grant. I didn’t have a bucket list of things I had yet to do. I had lived a full-enough life.
The weeks went on and I, obviously, didn’t die. And then I wondered, well, if I’ve done everything I wanted to do in life, then what am I doing? This led to a major crisis of self. I still loved my job, but there was something missing. While I can point to many examples of impact my work has had at the policy level in the US, I could not point to a single person whose life has been impacted by my work. And all of sudden, I felt heartbroken.
As a daughter of two high school teachers, I spent my life hearing the advice to not be a teacher. There was so much bureaucracy and little pay. But I was also well-aware of the students who would write my parents letters years after they were in their class, telling them what a profound impact my parents had on the trajectory of their lives. Students who would see my parents in the grocery store years later and gush about their class. The pride in my dad’s face when someone who hated math finally came to not only understand it, but love it.
In late 2020, I decided I wanted to teach. I wanted to have students. My PhD advisor is an incredibly accomplished researcher. But she also had an immense personal impact on my life. She continues to be my role model and friend. At a minimum, I wanted to give that to someone else. I left my job at RAND and took a faculty position at the University of Texas at Austin. UT Austin has a special place in my heart because I got my BS in math from UT. When I was here, there was no statistics department, so to come back to UT almost 20 years after I graduated and be part of a new department and have the opportunity to shape our new undergraduate major in Statistics and Data Science has been incredibly rewarding.
It’s overwhelming to ask yourself how you are going to save the world. But it’s a valuable question and I am grateful that I was asked it so early in my career. Sure, if you can answer it, it will help you craft your grants and motivate your research papers. But it’s deeper than that. Sometimes, you need to know why you do what you do. Why should you get out of bed? Why should you work on that painful paper revision? Or work on those awful simulations that don’t seem to be working, no matter what you try? What’s the point? Understanding how your work supports your values is key. It’s how I decide what to say yes to and what to say no to. It’s how I prioritize my day, my week, and my year.
We aren’t (real) doctors. We don’t literally save lives. But as teachers, as researchers, and as leaders, we do save the world—one person at a time.