Strength in numbers

Making a mark in the field of statistical engineering—a field historically dominated by men—is no easy feat for women. But 6-foot Claremont statistician and retired professor Janet Myhre stands tall as a woman pioneer despite the odds.

“You have to prove yourself by just working hard,” she said. “You have to be decisive. You have to be better.”

It’s advice she gives her students and has put into theory in her own life. If there is any statistician to give sage advice, especially to females in math and science, it’s Ms. Myhre. Her achievements have placed her among the top in her field, and recent events have placed her among the very best.

Ms. Myhre was awarded the Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) Lifetime Achievement Award last May for her many years of statistical work for the FBM Strategic Systems Program. The prestigious award is bestowed upon a person who has made significant contributions in the field of science and engineering and has been pivotal to the weapons program’s development and success.

For Ms. Myhre, the honor is among her crowning achievements, in addition to being named an honorary Claremont McKenna College alumna by her students, because the recognition of her good work came from those who matter most.

“People in the Navy I truly respect are saying they like my work,” Ms. Myhre said. “It shows me my work is appreciated by those who are meant to appreciate it. My teaching should be appreciated by my students, and my work by those who use it. That really means something to me.”

Receiving such an award, sought by many but given to select few, is no easy task. Only one or 2 award recipients are chosen a year, about 70 to date. Though few are bestowed with such an honor, it is no surprise to Ms. Myhre’s colleagues at the US Navy that she is among those exclusive ranks.

“Her success rate is unprecedented,” said coworker Jim Kern. “Janet has probably single-handedly contributed as much if not more about developing the testing methodologies to determine and maintain the high-reliability system that guards our nation than any other.”

Ms. Myhre has spent her 45 years working with the US Navy’s weapons program in maintaining the system’s reliability, finding its flaws and figuring out how to fix them. Her attention to detail and meticulous accuracy is unparalleled, noted coworker Michael Coussa.

“She takes it personal that her work is relied on by the decision-makers in Washington to keep our country safe,” Mr. Coussa said. “You can always count on Janet to give you more than expected. She doesn’t cut corners.”

She maintains that level of detail in all the work she does, expecting nothing short of perfection whether in her published works, her dedication to her student interns or her consulting work for the US Navy. Ms. Myhre admits to her perfectionism, and a stubborn streak, even when it came to starting her own statistical consulting company MARC (Mathematical Analysis and Research Corporation).

As one of the few women in her workplace, Ms. Myhre had a stronger resolution to be successful. She was the only female statistician when she came to Claremont in 1961 to teach at the Claremont Colleges and one of very few in other employments. She credits her strong support system for helping her weather through difficulties that many women face. Her father was an especially strong proponent to her success. Noting his daughter’s mathematical and analytical capabilities, he encouraged her to pursue a career that complemented her strong suits.

“He would give me problems to solve from a very young age and showed me clever tricks on how to solve them,” Ms. Myhre said.

Subpar math experiences in high school, however, almost extinguished her love for her favorite subject. Upon entering college, Ms. Myhre told her dad that she would be pursuing a career as a lawyer; no more math classes. But he had a plan. Ms. Myhre was invited to a dance by a local high school football hero and needed a new dress. Her father proposed a bribe. He would buy her any dress she wanted from a popular boutique in town if she would sign up for a math class of his choosing. She obliged.

“The dance was okay, the young man was not very interesting…the math class was fabulous,” she said with a smile. “I couldn’t get enough math after that point. It’s amazing how things turn in your life.”

She began work for Boeing in 1956 right after finishing a master’s in mathematics from the University of Washington. Her first appointment as a statistician proved to be a pivotal learning lesson that would shape her career.

“It was challenging—quite different from answering problems in the back of a book—but very rewarding,” Ms. Myhre said. “I was finally being forced to take all that I’d learned in physics, chemistry, engineering and math and apply it. There was a lot more to it than just proving theorems in pure math.”

She would later establish her own program, the Reed Institute for Decision Science, to give her students real-world experience by bringing in actual problems for the students to solve.

“It’s invaluable,” Ms. Myhre said. “It’s not something you learn in school books.”

Ms. Myhre found the challenges further excited her passion for problem-solving. Though she would leave her job at Boeing to have a child and allow her husband to finish his PhD, she couldn’t keep away from the algorithms and bell curves for long. After relocating her family to Stockholm because of a job opportunity for her husband, Ms. Myhre returned to school to finish her doctorate, receiving a PhD in mathematical statistics in 1968.

She began work at a neighbor’s consulting company upon graduation, helping to solve problems for the US Navy’s Strategic Weapons System. Her boss traveled to Washington, DC to present her work, and the naval officers were so impressed they asked to meet the person behind the consultant’s statistical findings.

“They said, ‘Would you bring in that young man who’s doing all that work for you?’ That is a direct quote,” she laughed.  

When the Navy decided to end its contract with the consulting company, Ms. Myhre was asked by the Navy to create her own firm and continue that partnership. Ms. Myhre founded her company, MARC, in 1973. It proved to be an interesting venture for the statistician who had never taken an accounting or economics class. She presented the Navy’s auditors a loose-leaf notebook with travel expenses, and was clueless as to their questions about having a chart of accounts.

“They said, ‘If the Navy didn’t like you so much we wouldn’t be wasting our time. You don’t know anything about running a business,’” she recalled of the initial startup. “I learned really fast.”

Her company’s pivotal early work included working on the Navy’s Poseidon Modification Program, correcting operational flaws in the ballistic submarine missile. MARC is also responsible for developing the assessment program for the reliability of the missiles in the naval weapons program. Though she experienced various levels of discrimination in other areas of her career, not once was she targeted by her naval colleagues because of her gender. To this day, the Navy continues to entrust a great deal of its work in the hands of its stubborn and beloved perfectionist.

Now the recipient of a lifetime achievement award, Ms. Myhre plans to continue adding to her list of accomplishments. She may have retired from her professorship at the Claremont Colleges, but she is far from giving up on her work with the Navy, and they have not given up on her either.

“They give me triple the amount of work now than they used to,” she joked, but she appreciates the work.

“I don’t know what I‘d do if I retired. I don’t want to play bridge. I don’t play tennis. You can only do so much Sudoku,” Ms. Myhre said. “I love what I do and will continue to do it for as long as I can do it well.”

—Beth Hartnett


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