Statistical Science

A Conversation with Nan Laird

Louise Ryan

Full-text: Open access


Nan McKenzie Laird is the Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of Biostatistics at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. She has made fundamental contributions to statistical methods for longitudinal data analysis, missing data and meta-analysis. In addition, she is widely known for her work in statistical genetics and in statistical methods for psychiatric epidemiology. Her 1977 paper with Dempster and Rubin on the EM algorithm is among the top 100 most highly cited papers in science [Nature 524 (2014) 550–553]. Her applied work on medical practice errors is widely cited among the medical malpractice community.

Nan was born in Gainesville, Florida, in 1943. Shortly thereafter, her parents Angus McKenzie Laird and Myra Adelia Doyle, moved to Tallahassee, Florida, with Nan and her sister Victoria Mell. Nan started college at Rice University in 1961, but then transferred to the University of Georgia where she received a B.S. in Statistics in 1969 and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. After graduation Nan worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Draper Laboratories where she worked on Kalman filtering for the Apollo Man to the Moon Program. She enrolled in the Statistics Department at Harvard University in 1971 and received her Ph.D. in 1975. She joined the faculty of Harvard School of Public Health upon receiving her Ph.D., and remains there as research professor, after her retirement in 2015.

In the 40 years that Nan M. Laird spent at Harvard she authored or co-authored over 300 papers and three books, and mentored numerous graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty. According to Google scholar, her work has been cited over 111,000 times. She has received many awards for her varied contributions to statistical science. Some highlights include the Samuel S. Wilks Award, her election as Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, her election as Fellow of the American Statistical Association, the Janet Norwood Prize, the F. N. David Award and, most recently, the Marvin Zelen Leadership Award in Statistical Science. Professor Laird has served on many panels and editorial boards including a National Academy of Science Panel on Airliner Cabin Environment, which led to the elimination of smoking on airplanes. Professor Laird chaired the Department of Biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health from 1990–1999 where she was the Henry Pickering Walcott Professor of Biostatistics. In this interview she talks about her career, including her passion for mentoring students. She offers some helpful advice about balancing work and family life, acknowledging the powerful encouragement and support that her own family has given her over the years.

The interview was conducted in Boston, Massachusetts, in July 2014. A link to Nan’s full CV can be found at

Article information

Statist. Sci. Volume 30, Number 4 (2015), 582-596.

First available in Project Euclid: 9 December 2015

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Mathematical Reviews number (MathSciNet)

EM algorithm longitudinal data meta-analysis missing data statistical genetics


Ryan, Louise. A Conversation with Nan Laird. Statist. Sci. 30 (2015), no. 4, 582--596. doi:10.1214/15-STS528.

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  • Dempster, A. P., Laird, N. M. and Rubin, D. B. (1977). Maximum likelihood from incomplete data via the EM algorithm. J. Roy. Statist. Soc. Ser. B 39 1–38.
  • DerSimonian, R. and Laird, N. M. (1983). Evaluating the effect of coaching on SAT scores: A meta-analysis.” Harvard Educational Review 53 1–15.
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