Liza Bolton

Liza is a statistician and entrepreneur. Find out about her research on mortality inequality in New Zealand, her side hustles and her advice to new doctoral students.

Liza Bolton smiling to camera holding a science coursebook.
Liza at the Mathematical and Computational Sciences Alumni & Postgraduate Showcase 2017

Programme: PhD in Statistics
Research topic:
Life-course predictors of mortality inequalities across ethnic groups in Aotearoa New Zealand
Supervisors: Professor Alan Lee and Dr Barry Milne
Faculty: Science (Department of Statistics)
Funding: University of Auckland Health Research Doctoral Scholarship

Tell us about your journey to PhD study

I was born in Canada and moved with my family to the rural Waikato just before high school. I was able to explore lots of ideas around ethnicity and social disparities through History, English and Drama at high school and was really lucky to get a University of Auckland Scholarship for my undergraduate studies based on the leadership, academic and cultural opportunities my school offered. My mum cried when we got the letter saying I’d got the scholarship!

I really enjoyed the pure maths element of my undergraduate degree – imagine how you feel when you complete a Sudoku, but 10 times better (I had the proof that the square root of two is irrational up on my wall with hearts around it during high school). Once I finished my honors degree, I went straight into my PhD with funding from a University of Auckland Health Research Doctoral Scholarship. I went with applied statistics, which let me combine my enjoyment of numbers with the chance to answer questions about social issues I cared about. 

Tell us about your doctoral research – in layman’s terms!

The core of my research is exploring how patterns of social and economic experiences across New Zealanders’ lives relate to mortality. For example, does going from having a higher status job to a lower status job change your risk of dying? Is it different for males and females? I also want to understand whether there are social or cultural factors that might help protect against risky social and economic situations, and whether differences in these patterns can help explain the still large ethnic disparities in mortality in Aotearoa. I hope a better understanding of these questions may prove useful for developing public policy.

Liza in a lecture theatre gesturing towards a screen showing the words 'Socio-economic status'. Two people are in the foreground.
Liza presenting on her PhD topic.

What does research look like to you?

The data I use is from the New Zealand Census and it is really important to keep this data secure. I log in to a Stats NZ computer in Wellington from our secure datalab in Auckland to do all my analyses. Any outputs have to go through the Stats NZ checking team to make sure no one’s personal data is identifiable. I am really lucky to work with an incredible research team, COMPASS, full of lots of statsy folks who are interested in public health and society, too. When I’m not on a computer in the datalab analysing, or on a computer outside the datalab reading and writing, I am learning from this team and having neat conversations about their research. It is great to be part of both the Department of Statistics and COMPASS because both are supportive environments full of interesting people that span an amazing range of interests.

What have been some of the highlights during your PhD so far?

I've had a lot of great experiences. Getting accepted to speak in Chicago at the Population Association of America conference was pretty awesome! I've worked on the Global Methods, Local Data project, which works on incorporating Māori and Pacific data stories in statistics course content. I even won a Department Teaching Award! And day to day I get to surround myself with smart and caring people working on projects they are passionate about. That’s a pretty great environment to be in.

Where can we find you when you’re not ‘doing research’?

In relation to the PhD, you can often find me at departmental seminars or doctoral workshops or writing/fervently wishing the paper I’m working on would write itself.

Outside of the PhD, you might also find me running my statistical consulting side hustle, The Data Embassy. I also design goofy stats themed t-shirts like Florence Nightingale’s Statistical Bouquet (did you know ol’ Florence was a data journalist? Search for her rose plots), or speaking to young people and teachers about how great stats is through events like Incredible Science, Girl Guides Wicked Science and our Courses and Careers Day.

Liza (in her Statistical Bouquet t-shirt) and team shot from above, forming a human histogram.
Liza (in her Statistical Bouquet t-shirt) and team form a human histogram at the Incredible Science event

What are your hopes for the future?

For a long time now, “helping people use data to make better decisions” has been a mission statement of sorts for me. There are a couple ways I think I want to do that in the future. Firstly, I’d love to lecture. I took the first half of 2017 off from PhD life to lecture full-time and absolutely loved it. Working with students to help them understand how statistics can help them in their personal and professional lives is a great buzz, and I really like sharing this subject I’m so enthusiastic about. Secondly, I’d want to keep some skin in the statistical analysis game because I enjoy it and it would inform my teaching. The dream would be working with organisations whose missions I support to help them answer useful questions and communicate results clearly and compellingly.

Have you got any advice for people starting or about to start a PhD?

Know what a PhD actually is. It's the entry-level qualification for the professional academic or research career. You’re a toddler researcher taking wobbly first steps, and you’re definitely going to fall over a few times. Learning how to get back up is just one of the skills you get better at.

What’s your PhD soundtrack?

Hamilton: The Original Broadway Cast Recording. I got to see this musical in Chicago while I was there for a conference and it was incredible! The song Non-Stop has some lyrics that definitely strike a PhD chord: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time? Write day and night like you’re running out of time?”.