Portrait of Paul Ferraro

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First, You Have to Do the Math

Can math help artists do better work? Dr. Paul J. Ferraro might say yes.

Knowing many artists are deeply engaged in the issues of their time, Ferraro, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Business and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, spoke to BSA students today about how math and statistics can help solve social problems. Ferraro’s talk focused on HIV in Malawi in particular, tying in with BSA’s themed year, Africa Now: Global Creativity in Perspective.

Alejandra Lorenzo-Chang, who teaches Spanish as well as probability and statistics, invited Ferraro to speak to her students during fourth and fifth periods. In addition, students from algebra, honors U.S. history, and health also attended the interdisciplinary talk.

Ferraro asked the students how many of them came to BSA because they loved math. Not surprisingly, not a single hand went up. Ferraro, however, was prepared to make the case as to how math and science could help BSA students become better artists.

Ferraro spoke about Tahir Hemphill, who created the Rap Almanac. Hemphill’s work uses semantic rap data to create sculptural forms, revealing the intersection of rap and culture. He also cited Vibha Galhotra, a talented artist who prefers to let intuition guide her work on the challenges surrounding urbanization and globalization.

“But if you want to be involved in the solutions, not just raising awareness, you have to know the facts,” Ferraro said. “Math and science are really critical to solving social and health problems. Use those tools!”

He then walked students through a case study in Malawi, testing the hypothesis that once an individual learns s/he is HIV positive, s/he will engage in safer sexual behavior and reduce disease transmission. Ferraro explained first why it mattered: Resources are limited, so they must be used in the most effective manner possible. Correlation does not equal causation, so how do we shape an experiment that statistically eliminates coincidence?

“Statistics can help you differentiate chance from real effect,” Ferraro said.

Ferraro walked the students through each step of the experiment, discussing alternative hypotheses and the process used to determine the true behavioral motivation. In Ferraro’s experiment, Malawians who were newly aware of their HIV status were more than twice as likely to purchase condoms. (However, the condoms were purchased when someone knocked at their door and offered them at a discounted price.)

A discussion followed, giving the students some time to apply Ferraro’s talk to their current academic and art projects.

Vocal student Owen O’Leary mentioned he is working on a group project about whether HIV rates in Tanzania are effecting exports of goods and services. Ferraro walked through some of the questions O’Leary’s group should examine.

Ferraro’s talk also inspired some students to think differently about their art.

“I’m very much into community, social justice, and social issues. I’m always speaking out with my voice and opinions, and it’s almost always from an emotional perspective. I now have a different way of looking at data and how it can help me communicate my message,” said Nani Innocents ’17.

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