The 2012 Researcher of the Year is known campus wide as a statistical guru, but that was not his original career path. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of South Carolina in 1987, Holmes Finch soon discovered his real passion. Having enjoyed a statistics course as an undergraduate student, he switched his focus to statistics and earned a master’s in educational research from South Carolina in 1990.
Finch quickly put his expertise into practice, remaining at the University of South Carolina as manager of its Statistical Consulting Laboratory. “I learned much more there than I did in class by applying it. I learned most of what I know about statistics from that experience,” he says.
While working in the lab, Finch completed his PhD in educational psychology and research in 2002. Looking for more dynamic work and an opportunity to teach upper level statistics, in 2003, he joined the faculty at Ball State’s Department of Educational Psychology.
“Statistics is a very broad discipline, just like psychology or chemistry,” Finch says. “I consult in pretty much all aspects of it, but my personal research focuses in two areas: latent variable modeling and multivariate statistics.”
Latent variable modeling (LVM) looks at topics that researchers are interested in but are difficult to measure, such as intelligence. Finch writes programs to create simulated data that help to test these statistical tools in order to improve the ways in which this type of information is collected and understood.
Typically, researchers would administer an IQ test to measure an individual’s cognitive ability. However, a myriad of factors can affect these scores, such as the weather or the room where the test is held, and lead to errors in the results. LVM statistically works to tease out what part of that score is random variability and what part is the truest indicator of the subject’s intelligence. To assist with this type of research, in 2007, Finch received an internal grant from the university’s Joseph and Marcella Hollis Fund to look at the influence of psychological orientation on practice in gifted education.
Multivariate statistics deals with measuring multiple factors at once. Finch’s work in this area takes data from these studies and attempts to show a broader picture of the results.
“So the statistician’s job is to explore when those things work and when they don’t and then to help develop new methods to deal with situations where we need improvement,” Finch explains.
This allows researchers to better assess how to set up their research questions and tests. For one such project in 2008, Finch was the recipient of a grant ($252,080) from The Walton Family Foundation to assist with his project “Comparative Public School Funding: Policies that produce equity and investments that lead to student achievement.”
Finch has gained an impressive reputation at Ball State. He is frequently sought out to consult with peers outside of his department and college on various statistical issues. As a highly respected and enthusiastic collaborator, Finch has been involved in numerous projects, such as the Human Performance Laboratory’s work on “Skeletal Muscle Health with Aging and Life-Long Exercise,” funded by the National Institutes of Health.
“One of the best things about working with people from outside statistics is that it allows for this cross-pollination of ideas. It keeps me from becoming too narrowly focused, whether in my own research or in what advice I can give to my colleagues,” says Finch.
Finch is also recognized for his outstanding publication record, which is all the more impressive considering he has held his PhD for only eight years. Finch has published 71 peer-reviewed articles, 39 of which he is the sole author, and is currently writing two books during his sabbatical.
“I think it’s a matter of seeing a problem that hasn’t been addressed, or at least not in a particular way. Having such a broad background in statistics allows me to bring in a multidisciplinary approach to my research and consultations,” says Finch.
However, what makes his research so impressive is not simply the quantity of the publications but the quality of his research. That quality has helped him to be recognized on a national and international level, and this recognition has reflected on the university as well. Finch’s colleagues and students praise his generosity, both with his time and his talents. He has sat on more than 60 dissertation committees and constantly includes students, whenever possible, as coauthor in publications and conference presentations.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with students, helping them where possible,” he says. “I think Ball State allows for a great balance between being involved in research and being involved with students. The totality of the things I’ve been able to do here is a testament to this. Ball State has been everything I’d hoped in terms of support from the department and the university.”