Maths and Computing Awardee 2020: Dr Juhyun Park
Updated: Jun 17
“I never stopped asking questions”
Dr Juhyun Park is an Associate Professor in Statistics at the National School of Computer Science for Industry and Business (ENSIIE) in France. As a statistician, Park tries to make sense of complex data, often in high or infinite dimensions, using non-parametric models – models which use a flexible number of parameters, rather than a fixed number. Park adapts and develops these models to suit different data types such as drug response relations, energy consumption and financial services.
For Park, mathematics has been on her mind from a young age. “As a child I was very shy and timid, but at the same time, I was very inquisitive. I never stopped asking questions,” Park said. “At the time, I didn't know many other fields, but I found that mathematics was simple and beautiful, so analytical, logical and abstract.”
Park continued her pursuit of mathematics at Seoul National University in South Korea, completing an undergraduate degree in mathematics and education in 1996. It was here, during her fourth year of study, that Park discovered statistics. “I found that as I was learning pure mathematics, I had become stuck in this abstract world without really understanding or connecting with my world. Then I just took a statistics course, and it somehow changed my future.”
“Even though you speak the same language you sometimes feel that you don’t”
Following a Masters in Statistics, also at Seoul National University, Park moved to the USA to study for a PhD in Statistics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For Park, gaining her PhD is one of her greatest achievements. “Life is full of challenges, but I think as a student it was a really difficult period,” Park remarked. “As much as I enjoyed the studying there was also this uncertainty associated with it. I was in this new world on different soil, fighting against myself, doubting whether I could even complete my PhD, but at the same time surviving in the new system. When you're in a foreign country you are either a native, or a foreigner - and the foreigners are treated differently and you're often misunderstood or misjudged. Even though you speak the same language you sometimes feel that you don’t, and people’s expectations of you are different.”
But the generosity of several mentors helped Park to immerse herself in her studies. “During my PhD, the late Professor Peter Hall, one of the greatest statisticians of all time, gave a lecture at my university. Somehow, we got talking to each other and then started collaborating. I spent a month visiting him in Australia, it was amazing to see how dedicated he was to his research but at the same time how hospitable he was. Similarly, my PhD supervisor, Professor Steve Marron, worked with a lot of international scientists, so he understood my situation better and was very supportive and non-judgemental. They showed me how to be a true scientist, by consistently being fair and open, and I have tried to embody that in my life.”
“I think statistical thinking is very human-like”
Since her PhD, Park has held positions across Europe; from the University of Zürich, Switzerland, to Lancaster University, UK. However, Park’s passion for statistics has remained a constant. “I think statistical thinking is very human-like – it’s all about incorporating errors, uncertainties, and incomplete information which in turn offers different perspectives and new solutions. Over time I’ve also realised that statistical theory is always motivated by real problems and if you only look at the theoretical side you miss something.”
Currently, Park is part of the Laboratoire de Mathématiques et Modélisation d'Évry, France, where she’s delved deeper into applications of her statistical models. “One of the recent applications is in cancer genomics. When people are treated for cancer, you can observe certain responses to drugs given at various dosage levels which we can map as a curve and figure out the trend. Other units, such as time, can also be used. Data which changes over very fine time scales is what I’m most interested in.”
“Don't be afraid to jump into the unknown world because you already amazing”
Having faced her own challenges in the scientific community, Park believes re-defining success, changing who is at the top, and making education more freely accessible, will help to create greater diversity in the field. “Science is not an exception from the competition-driven culture and narrow definition of success in modern society, which encourages people to just focus on what you have done and ignore the contributions from others or the impact that people have had on you. I think this expectation is driven by a culturally dominant group of people at the top. Unless you diversify this level of people who have the power to change things, others won’t be able to enter into the system. Also, the financial pressure on university students doesn’t help the research culture to be inclusive. Making higher education freely, or at least more, accessible, would be good,” Park said.
To this next generation of scientists, Park also shared: “Whatever you do, follow your passion, experience the world as much as you can and don't be afraid to jump into the unknown world because you are already amazing.”
The Suffrage Science Maths and Computing Awards 2020 were held on Friday 6th November, 2020. You can find out more, and watch a recording of the event, here.