Making Statistics Available from a Distance

Joan Durso

Making Statistics Available from a Distance

When the semester started, no one expected to move all of Duke’s classes to remote delivery with only a week’s notice. But once the university announced its plans to do just that in response to COVID-19, the Department of Statistical Science had someone to turn to in order to ensure a smooth transition: Joan Combs Durso.

“She has been incredible,” Department Chair Jerome Reiter said. “She is working with faculty one-on-one to train them in remote learning, setting up their Sakai sites to work with Zoom, coordinating TA training with remote resources, and speaking with our undergrads. She has dedicated an enormous amount of time and energy to keeping Duke going. She truly is an inspiration.”

When not helping her colleagues adjust to a once-in-a-lifetime global event, Durso is the Statistics department’s coordinator of undergraduate training, research, and development. “My job is to make life better for the undergrads in the Statistical Science department,” Durso said. Helping the community adjust in abnormal times is just another extension of that role.

It’s also one Durso is particularly well-suited to perform. Prior to joining Duke in March 2019, Durso spent a decade teaching online classes at Sullivan University. She learned firsthand how difficult it can be to create engaging experiences through a screen, how hard it can be to build connections with students without the casual interactions that take place around campus. “While most faculty may be used to working remotely with research colleagues and graduate students, teaching online is very different and needs a different set of skills,” Durso said.

For the past few weeks, she’s been focused on helping her colleagues find available tools and learn how to best utilize them. Anticipating the situation, she started giving lessons on Zoom the week before spring break. At the same time, she was attending remote trainings to learn as much as she could.

Now, she’s just trying to be ready whenever questions come. “Mostly I fill in the gaps,” Durso said. “If somebody reaches out because they’re getting into something and they want to know what other people have done, I just try to communicate a lot. Basically, I’m sort of available to help out wherever I’m needed. I'm also grateful for the flood of incredible help and resources that KeepTeachingDuke, Learning Innovation, OIT and Trinity Tech Services sent our way.”

Then again, that’s how Durso has always approached her job. “Joan has made a difference to our undergraduates in so many ways,” Director of Undergraduate Studies Amy Herring said, noting Durso’s work in revitalizing the department’s majors union and supporting students as they launch Duke’s Actuarial Society.

“She is always around with a listening ear or shoulder for support of our students, and she works with students from the pre-major advising stage all the way through graduate training of our teaching assistants,” Herring added. “On my short list of reasons to be a statistical science major, along with our incredibly strong faculty and department and great career prospects, is: ‘Dr. Durso will take good care of you.’"