I believe I would have interviewed AnnMaria De Mars even if you hadn't sent me scads of e-mails and tweets suggesting her as a perfect candidate for the SAS Rock Stars series. I "met" AnnMaria when I started looking for SAS users on Twitter – nearly three years ago while preparing for my first SAS Global Forum conference. I was a newbie at SAS back then. My real introduction to AnnMaria was through her blog. After you've read it, you'll see why so many people who care nothing about statistics read AnnMaria's blog – it's because of her gift for storytelling and knack for cutting through life's pettiness.
For today’s interview, I’ve caught up with Dr. De Mars as she waits in her Las Vegas hotel room to watch her daughter fight. Among AnnMaria’s many accomplishments, she is a former gold medalist in the World Judo Championship. Now, she has the good fortune to see that passion in her third daughter, a professional fighter in mixed martial arts.
- I usually get to know SAS users as professionals first, by what they do. So, who is AnnMaria? Tell me about your formal role using SAS – teaching and consulting.
Until a few months ago, I was the Senior Statistical Consultant at USC – teaching SAS workshops to faculty, staff and graduate students, writing SAS documentation and providing individual consulting. For the past 25 years, I have been the partner or sole proprietor of one consulting company or another. Currently, I am the President and owner of The Julia Group, a consulting company specializing in statistical consulting, program evaluation and SAS programming. Right now, I am finishing the report on the beneficiary satisfaction survey for Ticket to Work, a work incentive program of the Social Security Administration.
- How do you use SAS at The Julia Group?
As a contractor group, we do a lot of survey analysis using the SURVEYSELECT PROC to select samples and analyze data. We also do a lot of statistical analysis, both for surveys and program evaluations. Analysis of covariance, repeated measures analysis of variance and MANOVA are probably the most frequent techniques for testing whether there are differences between treatment and control covarying for any pre-existing differences, comparing experimental and control group differences on pre-test and post-test or comparing groups for differences on multiple variables. We also do a lot of logistic regression – trying to predict which student will pass, which patient will survive or other categorical outcomes. Data visualization with SAS is also a common usage. We use SAS to present data in a meaningful way to people; we use both SAS/GRAPH® and JMP® for that.
- How long have you been using SAS® Enterprise Guide®? Some SAS users say they like the feeling of Base SAS better. Why did you start using SAS Enterprise Guide?
I started using SAS when I was pregnant with my first child, so it has been more than 28 years. I started using SAS Enterprise Guide – I believe at version 1 – many years ago. It was so slow, I decided it was a piece of junk and didn’t touch it again until three years ago, when I was at USC. I thought I should at least try everything that the university licensed and make recommendations as to what should be installed everywhere, what should be discontinued and what should continue at the current level of support. The speed had improved dramatically, as had the usability. I still use SAS Enterprise Guide almost as often as I use SAS, though not as much. That probably sounds contradictory. I might use SAS Enterprise Guide to create a graph, and see what it looks like or create a summary table. Or, I might use the characterize data task to get a quick look at the data quality.
- Now, can you tell us a little about your social side? I love your blog, and I know many of my colleagues and Twitter friends do, too. How long ago did you start blogging, and what was the impetus?
I started blogging because, when I was working for a large organization, I was told by the person in charge of the website that my pages on statistics and statistical software were too informal and too controversial. I was advised that our organization only had one voice and one personality and that was the Chief Information Officer. I was told, "If you want to have your own voice, why don't you start a blog or something! You either need to do that or learn to be like everyone else!"
I thought it would be a lot easier for me to start a blog than to learn to be like everyone else. This is actually the third blog I have started. The first was for judo, when I was Director of Development for one of the national organizations. I still write that one, too, and I think when some of the people who read my judo blog find and follow me on Twitter as @annmariastat they are probably disappointed there is not much discussion of how to armbar an opponent into submission.
- Many readers will not have met you in person, but I have. You are a tiny woman, but I know better than to spar with you. Why did you take up martial arts and how has that impacted your life?
I was a short, fat kid with thick glasses who sat inside, ate and read books all day. My mom managed to get a YMCA membership one year, drove me to the Y, opened the car door, pushed me out and said, "Go join something." In those pre-Title IX days, few sports accepted girls, but the judo instructor had a sister who had wanted to join. By the time I came along, she was a black belt. I have three brothers, so I was pretty used to fighting, and I was good at judo from day one. I ended up being the first American to win a gold medal in the World Championships. I think it was a positive impact on my life going into fields that have been male-dominated – many of my classes as an undergraduate were 90 percent male. I was an engineer in 1982 when women were even scarcer than they are now. I am so accustomed to being the only woman in the room that I am now happily surprised when there are other women on committees or projects.
- SAS sponsors science- and math-related events to encourage young people to aim for careers in math or science. What led you to your field?
I was good at math through high school, but not as much in college (a combination of being a 16-year-old freshman, full-time work and parties interfered). When I was in graduate school for my PhD, I objected to articles we were assigned that argued Hispanics have a lower average IQ because they are genetically less intelligent. The professor said, "AnnMaria, you just don't understand statistics." So ... I decided that would be my specialization for my PhD. I was very fortunate to be at a university with a lot of really good people in applied areas of statistics. The thing that was most helpful to me was to have a number of mentors, particularly the late Dr. Richard Eyman, who not only taught me a lot but also encouraged me to go further, introduced me to other people in the field and was constantly loading me down with stacks of books I must read or courses that I must take even after I had completed every required statistics course. He really instilled in me the idea of learning not everything you need, but everything you can possibly ever learn.
- I know you have an unusual, but very interesting, passion. Could you tell me a little about your research?
I have a lot of interesting passions. Have you been talking to my husband? Two projects I have worked on a lot are evaluation of blended learning (combination of online and classroom instruction) for direct care staff for people with disability and chronic illness on American Indian reservations and analysis of data on ethics.
- Which of your SAS projects was the most fun to work on?
In 28 years? That's like picking your favorite child! MANY years ago, I did a meta-analysis of home environment effects on cognitive development, trying to answer the question "Why do some children from what seem to be very poor, almost toxic, environments turn out well?" It was for the Theory Construction and Research Methodology workshop of the National Council on Family Relations. They do publish proceedings, but since that was pre-Internet, it is not available online. Two of the more interesting things I worked on lately were an article on Internet usage by Native Americans on reservations and analysis of ethics data. One of the reasons the article on Internet usage was interesting is that I set myself the challenge to do all of the analyses for a scientific article using SAS Enterprise Guide. The article was published in Rural Special Education Quarterly in July. The other reason that was interesting is because people had assumed a lot of things about people with disabilities living on the reservations, but they didn't have any actual data, so we got to go out and collect that and analyze it. Plus, the people I worked with were just really interesting in and of themselves.
A while back, I had someone contact me for a genetics project. They had mapped the genomes of a couple of a male and female. They wanted to run a simulation to randomly create 100,000 offspring by random combinations of the genes and then use those records as input to another program to compare the distribution of traits in the population to what would have been observed in a population that was truly random. They could then compare the data and see which genetic combinations did not appear, which led them to speculate that perhaps those were either lethal combinations or something that caused the offspring to be quickly weeded out by predators, like a slow rabbit. One reason it was fun was because I generalized from the parallel analysis criterion we used way back in graduate school to decide on the number of factors to come up with an analogy for what we could do to create a sort of population value to test against. Another reason it was fun, as you can tell by my explanation, is that genetics is far out of my field so I was working with people who knew a lot about their area but not a lot about SAS while I was at the other end.
- Is there something else really cool about you that I’m missing? Do you volunteer, raise money for the poor, are you a cancer survivor, do you raise animals, etc.?
My children are as far apart as four people could be. The oldest is a journalist who writes for ESPN and Fox News Latino. The second teaches history at an inner city middle school. The third is a professional fighter in mixed martial arts. And the fourth is a seventh grader on the student council for her third year.
My current company, The Julia Group, is a spinoff of Spirit Lake Consulting, a company I co-founded with two partners. When I decided to run my own company, I had to come up with a new name. I was in North Dakota, readying to sign the paperwork and talking to my husband on the phone. He asks jokingly of our youngest daughter, "What do you think Mom ought to name her new company?" and the little one in the car seat pipes up, "She should name it after me!"
Hence, The Julia Group. Julia De Mars is named after Gaston Julia, the mathematician who the Julia set of fractals is named after.
While trying to convince me he was cool enough to date me, my husband wrote a program to create fractals, made a pink fractal and e-mailed it to me as an attachment on Valentine's Day. This is back when very few people had e-mail, much less knew about attachments. Obviously, it worked. The shareware fees from the fractal program pretty much paid for all of the baby furniture, clothes and toys. Unfortunately, now she's bigger and wants more expensive toys.
- Why do you attend SAS Global Forums? I know you are a SAS Rock Star, so I’m wondering if you go to learn things, teach or network? What is the high you get from going?
We're a small company and our senior partners tend to be specialized – in medicine, qualitative research curriculum design – so usually if I have a technical problem to figure out, I'm on my own. The papers from SAS Global Forum are a great help, as are SAS-L, saspedia, the SAS blogs and the people I follow on Twitter. The big advantage of SAS Global Forum is that it is all in one place. I can go to a session on Bayesian procedures, to another on multiple imputation and a third on macros, all in the same morning. Also, I can learn about new procedures or statistics BEFORE I need them, so when a possible use comes up, I remember what I heard three months ago. It's not just the new features coming out, sometimes it's new ways of using old features, like logistic regression to calculate propensity scores, or some cool macros to read in your PROC CONTENTS output and create a report on available data. And, I take a class before and after the conference.
SAS Global Forum is a really high concentration of smart people all in one place, and there are people I have met there, like, and look forward to meeting again. The main reason I go, though, is for the sessions. I go to a presentation almost every hour of every day except for the first one in the morning (I don't do mornings). I attend as many of the SAS Presents exhibits as I can.
Basically, I go to soak up as much knowledge as I can. I like to learn stuff.
AnnMaria won’t be presenting at this year’s SAS Global Forum. She hasn’t had any free time for fun stuff like writing a SAS paper. She says that she is kept quite busy “writing grant proposals, bidding on contracts, writing reports for clients, [writing]journal articles and blogs (not to mention doing the actual programming and research design) and coaching.”
You can keep up with her tips and programming insights by following her blog. You can also check out these papers. How do you know AnnMaria De Mars?