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Statistician Aad van der Vaart Knight in the Order of the Dutch Lion

During a symposium in honour of his 60th birthday, statistician Aad van der Vaart received the royal award of Knight in the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands. Colleagues talk about his significance for their field and how they got to know him. ‘The collaborations with Aad have been one of the great pleasures and inspirations of my scientific life.’

On Monday evening, 17 June, Leiden mayor Henri Lenferink presented Van der Vaart the award. The ceremony took place during the reception on the first day of the symposium on the occasion of Van der Vaart's 60th birthday, which takes place in Leiden until 21 June. More than 200 participants are visiting to listen to 32 speakers, including internationally renowned scholars such as the now 80-year-old American statistician Brad Efron.
Van der Vaart receives the award for his internationally renowned scientific work on both mathematical and applied statistics. He also supervised 19 PhD students and was at the cradle of the Leiden Master's degree program in Statistical Sciences. Finally, he fulfilled and fulfills various administrative functions.
A curriculum vitae of Aad van der Vaart can be found at the bottom of this article.

Jon Wellner, professor of Statistics at the University of Washington:

‘I have known Aad for 34 years; I met him at a conference in Amsterdam in 1985 when he was a PhD student in Leiden. We have collaborated on research work in the areas of semiparametric models and empirical processes, resulting in a total of 7 joint papers and a book in 1996, which we are now revising together.

‘Aad has been one of the most prominent and influential scholars world-wide in statistics and probability. Since completing his PhD at Leiden University in 1987, he has contributed strikingly fundamental and path-breaking work in many different areas of statistics and probability including empirical processes, semiparametric statistics, likelihood methods for infinite-dimensional models,  nonparametric Bayesian statistics, and... the list goes on.

‘Aad has also done fascinating work in connection with more probabilistic problems and applications of statistical methods in tomography, genetics, and genomics.  He has collaborated with co-authors from biology, biostatistics, genetics, medical imaging, and more.’

Edward George, Universal Furniture Professor of Statistics, The Wharton School:

‘Twenty years ago, long before we ever met, word quickly reached me that Aad was developing a new theory for frequentist justifications of modern Bayesian methods, methods which had been the bread and butter of my own research. This theory would become a highly influential game changer, spawning a huge body of research that continues to this day by new generations of Bayesians.’

Jon Wellner:

‘Beyond the wide range of Aad's research work, what I find striking is the clarity of his writing and presentation, the attention to detail in proofs, and his superb taste in the choice of problems. His vision of statistical theory as a tool for understanding statistical methods and applications of statistics has been of great importance. The collaborations with Aad have been one of the great pleasures and inspirations of my scientific life.’

Edward George:

‘When I finally did meet Aad, it was wonderful to find out that this ferociously brilliant and deep genius was also a kind, gentle, gracious and unassuming human being. It is this rare combination of qualities that have made Aad a great leader, who creates such a collaborative and flourishing environment all around him.’

Frank van der Meulen, associate professor applied mathematics at TU Delft, obtained his PhD in 2005 with Van der Vaart at the Vrije Universiteit:

‘Aad has been of great importance in making asymptotic statistics accessible and deepening them. He is very influential in the development of asymptotics for non-parametric Bayesian methods. He is also active nationally and internationally in many areas. As a promotor, he is not someone who schedules an appointment with you every week and asks how things are going; perhaps also because I also had a co-promotor for that. But as soon as you ask for help, he makes time and comes up with good ideas. The biggest risk is that he will solve the mathematical problem for you immediately (or within a week).’

Jacqueline Meulman, professor of Applied statistics at the MI:

‘I have known Aad from long before he came to the MI in 2012. I have been there since 2006 and Aad and I were in a NWO cluster together, for which he visited Leiden every week.

‘But the most important collaboration with Aad was through our Leiden master's programme in Statistical Science for the Life & Behavioral Sciences, later expanded with Data Science. In 2008, a steering committee was compiling the curriculum for this new programme. Richard Gill and I were active on behalf of the MI, Aad took part from the Vrije Universiteit. In September 2009, we started as the first statistics master within a Dutch science faculty.’

Peter Stevenhagen, professor of Mathematics and scientific director of the MI from 2007 to 2015:

‘The MI has become a top institute through constant scouting and good contact with top researchers elsewhere. You do not recruit potential Spinoza Prize winners through advertising vacancies; almost all of our professors have been scouted at other universities in the Netherlands and abroad.

‘In 2012 we employed two full-time professors in statistics, out of a total of eight, when such a possibility arose with Aad. A third professor of statistics was not included in any strategy plan. It is hard to imagine that unanimous institutional support would exist for such an idea. But it was nevertheless true, and this what characterises the MI.

‘The negotiations with the Faculty Board and Aad's introduction to Leiden's administrative culture are a whole new story, but it all turned out well, and Aad was subsequently awarded an ERC Advanced Grant and a Spinoza.’

Jacqueline Meulman:

‘After Aad came to the MI in 2012, our collaboration has further intensified. Where Richard Gill and I were the only statisticians at the MI at one point, a true explosion took place after Aad's arrival. With his ERC Grant and my IBM-SPSS royalties, Aad and I were able to appoint a growing group of PhD students, postdocs and associate professors. When Aad also received a Spinoza Prize, the demand for room space seemed to be a major problem for statisticians. Fortunately, Aad then became the scientific director of the MI, which meant he could not spend his Spinoza money immediately. In my opinion this was a good thing, because Aad is not only an impressive scientist, but also a gifted director.

‘I can't help but summarise this in a few keywords. Aad is:
Cool, calm, and collected;
Smart, sharp and social;
Determined, dedicated, and a dear friend.’

Curriculum vitae Aad van der Vaart

Aad van der Vaart studied mathematics, philosophy and psychology at Leiden University, and obtained his PhD there in 1987 on the thesis Statistical estimation in large parameter spaces. After appointments in the United States and France, he became a professor at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in 1997. In 2012 he joined the Mathematical Institute (MI) of Leiden University as professor of Stochastics. Since 2015 he is also Scientific Director of that institute.

Van der Vaart has received prizes such as the Van Dantzig Prize for the best Dutch researcher under 40 in statistics or decision-making (2003), an ERC Advanced Grant (2013) and the Spinoza Prize, the highest scientific award in the Netherlands (2015).

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