Assistant professor teaches statistics with empathy and curiosity: Q&A with Stephen Aichele

Stephen Aichele

Stephen Aichele is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Colorado State University. Learn more about why he came to CSU and his teaching philosophy.

What brought you to the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at CSU? 

I was working as a research scientist at the University of Geneva, Switzerland when changes in my domestic life compelled a return to the U.S. After an extensive job search for faculty openings in psychology and human development, I applied to a few select positions that seemed especially promising. Reading through the faculty profiles and research programs taking place in the HDFS department at CSU, it was clear to me that this department would likely provide the best fit given my background and expertise. While interviewing, the warmth, intelligence, and “can do” attitude I experienced at CSU left no doubt in my mind that this was where I wanted to make my new academic home.

What’s your teaching philosophy? 

My teaching philosophy boils down to a few things: empathy, curiosity, and a work ethic of “learning by doing.” I teach statistics to behavioral scientists. The subject matter can inspire both fear and boredom—which is unfortunate, because the historical development of statistical methods is anything but boring, and the skillful application of both basic and advanced statistical methods for human lifespan research can be very rewarding!

In both teaching and learning statistics, it’s important to be gentle with ourselves because the knowledge accumulation is iterative. It takes patience and determination to understand the essential concepts and how they interrelate (mathematically and/or theoretically). My primary goals in working with students are to help them to develop a positive appreciation for the power of statistical methods as scientific tools, to provide them with a solid foundation for understanding these methods in an applied context, and to encourage them to explore novel analytical approaches that can further their research and understanding of human behavior.

What are your research interests, and how did you get into that topic? 

My research is focused on the use of advanced statistical methods to understand age-related changes in human cognitive abilities and how those changes predict wellbeing and longevity across the lifespan. I would say that I had a decent mathematical sensibility early on, but this was overshadowed by a rapidly growing interest in psychology as a young adult. As the primary caretaker for a parent with a terminal illness, I became especially intrigued by mindfulness practice as a strategy for coping with chronic pain. Later on, I took a research position working on a major study of long-term intensive meditation practice. I coded the software for numerous cognitive and behavioral tasks, helped build the onsite EEG labs, and I was responsible for participant oversight and data collection. I then spent much of my time as a graduate student in quantitative psychology applying different statistical methods to the incredibly rich data set generated from this study. This honed my skill and knowledge of longitudinal data analysis—which in turn led to my first job post-Ph.D. as a full-time research scientist working with data from a ground-breaking study of cognitive aging. I’ve continued working in this research domain, and my primary interest now is in how detection of potentially subtle changes in cognitive abilities may be useful for predicting important health outcomes in older adults.

What’s your favorite thing about campus?

So far that would have to be the people who work here and the students whom I have met. Of course, it’s also a beautiful campus, and the proximity to the mountains is a draw. Fort Collins is a very well-rounded and interesting town, too!

What classes will you be teaching? 

At the moment I’m teaching Research Methods I, which covers the bread-and-butter introductory statistical material taught at most universities. The funny thing is that I T.A.’d a nearly identical course back when I was 19 years old! Of course, now my appreciation for the historical importance of the methods, and also for the finer details and controversies surrounding them, is much deeper. For the spring semester, in lieu of teaching, I will play more of a consulting role for students (and possibly faculty) in the department who need additional statistical guidance. The scope of this activity has yet to be clearly defined, and I’m already thinking about how to help the department better understand its own needs in this area. Down the road, I would very much like to expand the department’s statistical offerings to include instruction in more powerful software options (R, Python), a dedicated course on longitudinal data analysis, and possibly instruction in more advanced topics such as missing data (ubiquitous in developmental research), Bayesian analysis, and/or data mining and machine learning strategies.

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.