Friday, May 18, 2007

Universidad Rey Juan Carlos

Today I reverted temporarily to my former professional self and attended a one-day statistics workshop at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. As you can see from the photograph, URJC is "public, and ready for you". For a propaganda photo, taken from the university's official website, this picture is surprisingly accurate - it conveys quite well the hellish, searing heat which baked the campus today, as well as the sparsity of students. Imagine about a dozen or fifteen modern buildings (all erected within the last 10 years, though generally nowhere near as ugly as the boxes in the photo) , spread out across an imaginary rectangular grid, with huge amounts of open space between buildings. Bake this in the unforgiving glare of the harsh midday sun until everything attains the parched effect depicted in the photo. Then into this slightly post-apocalyptic landscape introduce a hundred or so students, and sprinkle them randomly around the campus.

Oh, heck - why not see for yourselves? This is the building where the conference took place:

It is imaginatively named 2nd department building. Below are (I'm not making this up) 2nd classroom building and 2nd laboratory building

URJC is just about ten years old. According to Wikipedia, there are over 17,000 registered students, not that you'd know it from these photos (nor from my visit today - 170 would seem closer to the mark). To be fair, the Móstoles campus is just one of three, so maybe all the students were hanging out elsewhere today.
Amazingly, this is not the only large public university built within the last 20 years here in Madrid. The Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (known as Carlos Tercero), also with a student body numbering roughly 17,000, was founded as recently as 1989. While I was in Granada, I opened El País one Monday, to be astonished by finding a face I actually recognized under one of the headlines. It turned out that the faculty and employees had, defying expectations, not elected a new rector from the law school, but had chosen instead Daniel Peña, a statistician.

Today's conference, a workshop on neural and evolutionary computing, was far more interesting than I had any right to expect. Unfortunately, the occasion was a sad one - it had been organized as a tribute to the life and work of Jorge Muruzábal, former head of the Statistics and Operations Research department at Rey Juan Carlos, who died last August following a massive heart attack. He was only 46. I attended the conference with a former colleague of mine from Genentech, who had worked with Jorge several years ago, when both were on the faculty at Carlos Tercero.

I've attended a few similar events over the years - fortunately, not too many. It seems to me to be a very difficult thing to get right - striking the appropriate balance between recognition of professional accomplishments and the opportunity to pay personal tribute. As with so many things here in Spain, today's tribute seemed to me to get it exactly right. Both of Jorge's parents, as well as his wife and her parents, and his brother, attended. The proceedings opened with a speech by the rector of the university, who took a good ten minutes to talk with the family at the coffee break; the vice-rector attended lunch and sat with the family, there was time for both professional and personal reminiscences. For me, perhaps, the most satisfying thing was that Jorge's doctoral adviser, an extremely famous, and highly prestigious, statistician called David Lane, had flown in to take part. His tribute to Jorge was extraordinarily gracious and generous, reinforcing my prejudice that graciousness is a hallmark of the really brilliant among academics.

A sad occasion, but an altogether satisfying celebration of a life in statistics. I did not know Jorge personally, but it was clear from today's proceedings that he was an extraordinary man, and a tremendous loss.