Ross Ihaka retires from the Department of Statistics

18 December 2017

Associate Professor Ross Ihaka
Associate Professor Ross Ihaka

R co-creator Associate Professor Ross Ihaka has retired from academic life, and has “getting up late, writing some stuff that has nothing to do with statistics, and relearning guitar” on the agenda. However, he’s not entirely sure where he’ll be doing that, Ross says. His partner is completing her doctorate at the University of  Canterbury, and her career will determine where they live.  

However, Ross will maintain a link to the Department of Statistics – he has an honorary position, and next year will teach a course in mathematical statistics. R, an open-source, statistical computing language that began as a student tool in the mid-1990s and is now used worldwide, is in capable hands. Department colleagues like Associate Professor Paul Murrell, who has been member of the international R core development team since 1999, Professor Thomas Lumley and Professor Chris Wild are among those who will continue to develop it. For the record, there are now more than 10,000 packages available in R to wrangle data.

Ross farewells his baby with no regrets: “I kind of left it 10 years ago, in a sense. I’m much more a starter than I am a finisher, so I’m always interested in going on and looking at new stuff.” Some of that “new stuff” is in the hands of PhD student Brendan McArdle, who is exploring a R-based language that has the potential to substantially speed up calculations.  

Ross, who is of Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne and Pākehā descent, says among the stand-out memories from his time in the Department of Statistics are meeting Robert Gentleman when Robert, a Canadian, came to the department in 1992; gaining tenure “before I knew that there was such a thing as tenure”; and “the fun of teaching”.

However, he is concerned that since the 1990s, university research environments have become overly focused on defined milestones and outputs, rather than valuing the sort of work that can head in unexpected directions – which is precisely the story of R. “I think an awful lot of good research comes as a result of serendipity – you find things that you didn’t expect to find, or were not planning to find, and that’s what’s interesting,” Ross says. “R is an example of that – we never, in our wildest dreams, thought anyone would be actually using it apart from us and a few students we inflicted it on.”

Department head Ilze Ziedins says that Ross’ contribution to the modern practice of statistics though R is “beyond measure. He is also a popular and inspired teacher who is revered by his students. We all wish Ross a very happy and satisfying retirement”.

Ross heads into retirement with a new acquisition: a tattoo of Euler’s Identity (e + 1 = 0) on his his left forearm, courtesy of his tattooist daughter Clara. “It’s the most beautiful equation in the world,” says Ross. “It’s also my nerd stamp.”