Explaining the world with statistics

Rice senior Dileka Gunawardana keeps busy collaborating with faculty on multiple research projects

Dileka Gunawardana

While taking STAT 421, “Applied Time Series and Forecasting,” taught by Katherine Ensor, Dileka Gunawardana applied a statistical machine-learning technique called the support vector machine to census data.

Last spring, Gunawardana’s findings about business owners and self-employed people won first place in the International Conference on Establishment Statistics (ICES) Student Contest. She was invited to present her research and discuss its major components.

“Dileka has been very busy. She works hard and has a deep love of statistics. I think she will succeed at anything she does,” said Ensor, Noah G. Harding Professor of STAT and president-elect of the American Statistical Association.

“The idea behind the SVM work,” said Gunawardana, a senior in STAT, “was predicting whether small businesses were the primary income source for their owners based on basic demographic information. We had a success rate of 83 percent.”

Long before she arrived as a freshman at Rice University, Gunawardana knew she wanted to pursue statistics: “It’s a way of explaining our world that makes sense.”

She was born in Houston where her father had earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Rice in 1998. Her mother is a child psychiatrist at Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital in Connecticut.

She is collaborating on her senior capstone project with Emma Dunn, a senior in computer science and STAT, advised by Marina Vannucci, the Noah Harding Professor of STAT. They are developing an R package to help users apply Bayesian variable selection to datasets when selecting an optimal method and prior distribution.

With another adviser, Meng Li, the Noah Harding Assistant Professor of STAT, Gunawardana is working with researchers at Methodist Hospital, using machine learning to identify novel ECHO parameters for accurate, more accessible cardiovascular diagnosis. “Basically, we’re developing algorithms to more efficiently analyze heart data,” she said, “working with ultrasound data.”

Last summer, Gunawardana worked as a business analyst intern with Capital One.

“I recommended structural policy changes to their programs to help delinquent customers become current on their loans,” she said. “It was a good experience. I had to consult with legal analysts and others to make sure it was feasible.”

Along with all her other projects, Gunawardana is busy applying to grad schools. She hopes to earn her Ph.D. in STAT.

“Rice has given me a solid understanding of statistical analysis, and many opportunities to use those tools,” she said. “I feel prepared to take the next step in my life and career.”

This profile is part of a series about undergraduate student research.