Honorary Degree speech by Robert Tibshirani

The following text is from Prof. Robert Tibshirani's honorary degree speech he presented on June 15, 2018. 

I would like to thank the University and the Department of Statistics for this honour. It means a great deal to me, both professionally and personally.

Now I suspect that one of the reasons I was chosen for this was actually for a non-academic achievement. I was a student here from 1973 to 1978 and  at the corner of University and Phillip Streets there was a restaurant called King Kong submarine. They had an ongoing contest to see who could eat a 3-foot fully loaded submarine sandwich in the shortest period of time. The record at  that time was 32 minutes.  I was a big eater, so my friends encouraged me to give it a try. I starved myself  for 2 days,  but drank lots of water to stretch my stomach. A friend of mine - Bob Saul- attempted it with me. At the 2 foot mark,  we were tied. Then Bob could not get the last foot down. Every bite would go in and back out again.

But I pressed on! In dramatic fashion, I shattered the record, finishing in 10 minutes and 45 seconds. As far as I know this record was never broken,  partly because the restaurant closed a few years later. However, for years afterwards, when I gave a talk at UW statistics, I was introduced not as a well-known statistician but as  the King Kong eating champion!

Fortunately,  eating was not the  the only thing I did at Waterloo:  I was also the anchor  of the Philip street co-op boat race (beer-drinking)  team. But I did go  to some classes.  Looking back at the 5 years I spent here, I'm just amazed at the impact  that such a relatively short period of  time has had  on my life. For example at Waterloo I learned computer programming  and in particular, the  Fortran programming language.  I'm proud to say that Fortran was largely invented here at Waterloo.   Now I know that you CS grads are probably snickering when I mention Fortran - since it's no longer "cool".   But don't I care!  Fortran is wonderful and I still use it to this day.

I had many inspiring teachers here to Waterloo and I want to honor one in particular:  Professor Jim Kalbfleisch.  Jim taught me my first course in statistics and later a course called discrete multivariate analysis. I still have Jim's handwritten notes from that course and I suggested to him years later that he should publish these-- but he told me- in typical Jim fashion- that they weren't good enough.   Jim went on to serve as a highly respected Vice President and Provost here at Waterloo for 12 years.

In 1997 I published a paper on cell phones and car accidents-- probably the most widely known research I have ever done. The main credit  for this work belongs to my good friend Dr. Don Redelmeier. It was one of the first studies that showed the dangers of using a cell phone while driving: we showed that it was as dangerous as driving drunk. I'm proud that that paper helped politicians to pass  laws in  North America and around the world, restricting the use of cell phones while driving.  The design of the study was fairly sophisticated and required some special statistical techniques.  Where did I look for guidance on  how to do this?  Jim's notes.

I was very sad to learn last year of Jim's passing.  He was a wonderful teacher and person.

This leads me to my final message. As you graduate today, remember those who have have supported you- your family and friends, teachers and even people who you have never met but from whom you have learned. Scientists, writers,  poets,  musicians-- everyone who has inspired you and contributed to the world's body of knowledge and arts.

Take the gifts that they have given you and do some good in the world. There's no better way to honor them.