Universiteit Leiden

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Sanne Willems

Assistant Professor

Name
Dr. S.J.W. Willems
Telephone
+31 71 527 2727
E-mail
s.j.w.willems@fsw.leidenuniv.nl
ORCID iD
0000-0002-0000-6387

Sanne Willems is an assistant professor in the Methodology & Statistics unit of the Institute of Psychology. She studies effective ways of communicating statistics and their uncertainties to improve data-driven decision making. Furthermore, she strives to improve (statistical) numeracy in society and to create more awareness for this topic. To this aim, she co-founded the Statistics Communication section of the VVSOR and its society’s statistics blog, initiated a reading group on the topic, and engages in various outreach activities.

More information about Sanne Willems

Sanne Willems is an assistant professor in the Methodology & Statistics unit of the Institute of Psychology. She studies effective ways of communicating statistics and their uncertainties to improve data-driven decision making. Furthermore, she strives to improve (statistical) numeracy in society and to create more awareness for this topic. To this aim, she co-founded the Statistics Communication section of the VVSOR and its society’s statistics blog, initiated a reading group on the topic, and engages in various outreach activities.

Research on statistics

Willems is trained as a mathematician and her PhD research focused on improving statistical models. Towards the end of her PhD, she noticed that many people have difficulty understanding even some basics in statistics, which made her realize that more research on statistics communication and numeracy is essential to improve data-driven decision making on policy and individual level. For example, when comparing various treatments, a patient should understand what the corresponding survival probabilities mean and how (im)precise these estimates are.

Therefore, she decided to shift research focus from mathematics to the communication of statistics to improve the understanding of statistical results. A project that received a lot of attention is Willems' study on the interpretation of probability phrases. These phrases (as likely) are regularly used to communicate risks, but her data showed that they are interpreted very differently by individuals and are therefore a risk for miscommunication. Furthermore, Willems is involved in the research project on debunking misleading graphs that is funded with a LUF Lustrum Subsidy.

Her current interest is in the communication of statistical uncertainties, as these are crucial when evaluating risks of various choices. She studies effective ways of communicating uncertainties and its effect on people’s cognitive, emotional, and behavioural responses.

Outreach

Willems commits herself to improving (statistical) numeracy in society through outreach activities, like explaining statistical concepts in blog posts, discussing her work on national radio, and developing a teaching package on misleading statistics. She encourages and facilitates other statisticians to do the same by arranging workshops and training for them as co-founder of the statistical blog and Media Expert Group of the Netherlands Society for Statistics and OR (VVSOR). Additionally, she's one of the authors of the Grafiekpolitie, who debunk misleading graphs on the factcheck website Nieuwscheckers.nl.

Academic citizenship

Willems finds it important that scientists also contribute to the academic society and for that reason she participates in various boards and committees. She especially enjoys organising events related to statistics communication to create more awareness on the topic among statisticians and other researchers. For example, she's the founding chair of the Statistics Communication Section of the Netherlands Society for Statistics and OR (VVSOR) via which she organises symposia about research in communication and workshops on communication skills. She's also an editor for the society’s magazine.

Additionally, Willems is a member of the Communication Advisory Board for Statistics Netherlands and coordinates the online reading group on statistics communication and (in)numeracy. She also strives to increase diversity in mathematics by organising the “A PhD, is that for me?” event that aims to encourage students from minority groups to pursue a PhD.

Teaching

Willems teaches courses in mathematics and statistics in the interfaculty master programme Statistics & Data Science and in the Psychology master programme. She initiated and designed a course on Data Visualization for students in statistics. In addition to teaching how to make graphs, she discusses the principles of effective data visualizations based on research in perception of graphs and graph reading. In this way she aims to motivate the students to think more carefully on how to communicate their statistical results.

Besides lecturing, Willems has been the study advisor for students in the Statistics & Data Science master programme, was a member of its admissions committee, and helped to update its curriculum. Currently, she's a member of the Board of Examiners of the programme.

Short CV

Willem studied Mathematics at Utrecht University and Statistics at Leiden University. After obtaining her PhD in Applied Statistics from the Mathematical Institute of Leiden University in 2020, she was promoted to Assistant Professor. In 2021 she moved within the university to the Methodology & Statistics unit of the Institute of Psychology.

Grants and awards

  • 2023: Project Grant, Leiden University Fund / Gratama-Stichting/LUF
  • 2022: YAL Outreach Grant
  • 2020: LUF Lustrum Subsidy (co-applicant)
  • 2019: IOPS Best Poster Award
  • 2015: IOPS Best Poster Award

Assistant Professor

  • Faculteit der Sociale Wetenschappen
  • Instituut Psychologie
  • Methodologie & Statistiek

Work address

Pieter de la Court
Wassenaarseweg 52
2333 AK Leiden
Room number 3B22

Contact

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