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BYU gets another Hall of Famer

Shane Reese’s career sounds like a boyhood dream: full of sports, bombs, race cars and space exploration.

He worked with nuclear weapons and helped the National Academy of Science monitor the demolition of two chemical weapons stockpiles. He consulted for an NFL team and the U.S. Olympic volleyball team. He published original research on baseball legend Babe Ruth and NASCAR icon Jeff Gordon. And he predicts the power of solar storms and helps government scientists understand a shape-shifting mass of energy on the edge of our galaxy.

For all that, this year he will join the hall of fame for statisticians by being named a fellow of the American Statistical Association.

“To my knowledge, Shane will be only the 5th resident of Utah to receive the honor, and the first since 2001,” said Dennis Tolley, chair of BYU’s department of statistics. “The title of fellow puts Dr. Reese in a club with statisticians that have changed the landscape of the science world.  This gives Dr. Reese superstar status among statisticians and adds notoriety to the department of statistics.”

The official citation notes his “key scientific contributions to national security and defense” among other things. But the overarching theme of Reese’s career at BYU is that he answers tricky questions from a variety of fields.

A prime example is his latest study on solar storms. The National Center for Atmospheric Research wants to develop a system to forecast space weather so they can protect earth’s satellite systems – and our cell phone service – from enormous solar flare-ups that happen every few years.

These storms are relatively rare but incredibly powerful, requiring a high-dimension statistical model which he published in The Annals of Applied Statistics.

“Prediction is the end goal – to better predict both the time and intensity of the storms,” said Reese.

Prior to his space work, Reese helped the International Whaling Commission with another challenging problem. In order to establish sustainable quotas and calendars for Eskimo subsistence hunts, the commission needed to know where the bowhead whales mated, where they gave birth, and how long a pregnancy lasted. Even with limited data, they arrived at a reliable estimate that a bowhead whale pregnancy lasts about 441 days.

“A lot of the things that I do are fascinating and I love them,” Reese said. “But all those other things I do so that I can pay the bills and go home and do some sports analysis.”

Sometimes that means actual consulting jobs with the Philadelphia Eagles, U.S.A Volleyball, or the BYU Athletics department. But he’s just as likely to play with sports statistics simply for his own enjoyment.

For example, have you ever wondered how Babe Ruth would have fared in modern baseball? Reese didn’t just wonder, he built a statistical model that bridged different eras in baseball. The Great Bambino would have had a lower batting average against today’s MLB pitchers but more home runs – an estimated 199 more career homers. The Wall Street Journal highlighted the research and said it should end the debate regarding who was the greatest slugger of all time.

Not all sports share baseball’s historical love affair with statistics and record-keeping. Despite NASCAR’s popularity, its fans have a relatively smaller appetite for data. So Reese and colleagues started from scratch and built a “box score’ of statistical categories that contribute to the odds of winning.

They also built a statistical model that would predict which drivers in the “minor league” racing circuits had the most potential for success at higher levels of competition. Reese has similarly pioneered the use of analytics in pro football, Olympic volleyball and other sports.

Jeff Morris, a biostatistician at the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas and a former classmate of Reese, nominated him as an ASA Fellow not just for his scientific skill, but for his love of teaching.

“He has an infectious enthusiasm that inspires students to enter the profession, and makes him an ideal ambassador for our profession,” Morris said.

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Professor Shane Reese

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Reese constructs high-dimension statistical models that describe powerful solar storms.
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