Lahiri receives first Sawyer professorship in mathematics

Lee Benham (left), professor emeritus in economics, is among faculty, students, alumni, administrators, staff and other members of the Washington University community celebrating the installation of Soumendra Lahiri (right) as the Stanley A. Sawyer Professor in Arts & Sciences. (Photos: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

Soumendra Lahiri has been installed as the Stanley A. Sawyer Professor in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. A ceremony was held earlier this year in Ridgley Hall to mark the occasion.

Lahiri’s research interests lie in theoretical statistics and data science. Much of his theoretical work deals with asymptotic theory, statistical machine learning, resampling methods, spatial statistics, and time series and econometrics. His data science work involves developing new methodologies and their applications to problems in laboratory sciences, in social and political sciences, and in national security.

Lahiri was selected as the inaugural recipient of the professorship named for the late Stanley Sawyer, a mathematics professor in Arts & Sciences from 1984-2013 and also a professor of genetics and biostatistics at the School of Medicine from 1985-2013.  It is one of three professorships in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics made possible by a 2016 estate commitment from Sawyer.

“It is an honor for Washington University, particularly in the spirit of our interdisciplinary work and the dual-campus legacy of Stanley Sawyer, that we usher in this new endowed professorship with Soumendra Lahiri,” said Chancellor Andrew D. Martin. “His research represents a wide swath of scholarship and service to the university. I am deeply grateful to the late Professor Sawyer for his generous commitment that has allowed us to appreciate Professor Lahiri in this meaningful way.”

Lahiri receives the professorship from Chancellor Andrew D. Martin.

“Soumendra’s work is particularly impressive because it highlights the many ways that data science and statistics touch actual lives. From spatial data to weather analyses, his expertise lies in harnessing mathematics to help make sense of the world around us,” said Barbara Schaal, outgoing dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences and the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor. “I’m grateful to have Professor Lahiri join our ranks.”

Lahiri earned a bachelor’s degree in statistics from the prestigious Indian Statistical Institute in 1984 and a master’s degree from the same institution in 1986. He moved to the United States to further his education and work under the supervision of Hira Lal Koul, a professor at Michigan State University, where Lahiri earned his doctorate in 1989.

He spent the first 17 years of his career at Iowa State University before moving to Texas A&M University. He became a distinguished professor of statistics at North Carolina State University in 2014 and held an honorary professorship at the London School of Economics for four years.

Lahiri joined the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in fall 2019.

He is the author of two books and over 100 scholarly papers. His work has been supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency. He is a fellow of the American Statistical Association and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics.

In addition, Lahiri serves as an editor of Sankhya, Series A, a quarterly journal and official publication of the Indian Statistical Institute, and he sits on the editorial boards of the Journal of the American Statistical Association and the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. He served as president of the International Indian Statistical Association and is currently a member of its board of trustees.

About Stanley A. Sawyer

Sawyer was a distinguished mathematician and statistician who was described as a polymath and a gentle man and was greatly admired by his colleagues, students and friends.

Born in Juneau, Alaska, in 1940, Sawyer earned his bachelor’s degree from the California Institute of Technology in 1960, followed by a doctorate there in 1964. He taught at New York University, Brown University, Yeshiva University, Purdue University and at the University of Washington in Seattle prior to joining the Washington University faculty in 1984 as professor of mathematics. In 1985, Sawyer also was named professor of genetics and biostatistics at Washington University School of Medicine.

He taught for nearly 30 years before retiring and being named professor emeritus in 2013. During his illustrious career, Sawyer authored 80 scholarly articles, was co-author of the book “A TEX Primer for Scientists” and mentored 12 postgraduate students.

He was widely known for the development of Geneconv, a computer program designed to analyze DNA and identify gene conversions that indicate mutation and evolution. Sawyer often served as an expert witness to evaluate DNA evidence.

In addition, Sawyer was a member of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics (elected a fellow in 1985), the Society of Molecular Biology & Evolution, the Genetics Society of America and the American Mathematical Society. At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), he was an ad hoc member of the Genetic Variation and Evolution Study Section from 2005-07. He died in 2017.

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