Roger Hoerl ‘79 finds career success, researches HIV/AIDS cure

TEMP ORARY October 27, 2011 0

Roger Hoerl is an Elizabethtown College alumnus. He is also the leader of the applied statistics laboratory at GE Global Research. Hoerl leads a team of about fourteen professional statisticians who work with probability to make predictions and forecast the outcome of risks that the company is considering taking, usually on long-term service agreements.

For all of his hard work in the practice of statistics, Hoerl is a Fellow of the American Statistical Association, which has awarded him with the Founders Award, and the American Society for Quality, from which he has received the Brumbaugh and Hunter Awards, along with the Shewhart Medal. He was also awarded the Coolidge Fellowship from GE Global Research. He has written six books, two book chapters, and is published in over thirty-five journals.
Yet, according to Hoerl, “a job is a good thing, but a job doesn’t define you.”

This line may be hard to swallow considering that it came from a man known so prestigiously for the hard work he puts into his career as a renowned statistician and leader. Yet Hoerl is much more proud of an identity most people would not normally expect from a man with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s and doctorate in statistics. Hoerl would prefer to be viewed as a humanitarian, a description which he fits quite well. So well, in fact, that he is this year’s recipient of the Educate for Service: Service to Humanity Award from Etown.

Beginning at Etown, Hoerl had no idea where life would take him. Looking back, he said, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do other than something related to math.”
Originally from Newark, Del., he chose to attend Etown for a few reasons. It was just far enough away from home, had a great mathematics program and he “liked the small school environment.” Hoerl graduated from Sanford High School, a small private school in Hockessin, Del., and wanted to go to a small college as well. And it was a choice well-made, considering what he was able to accomplish here at Etown.

Hoerl majored in mathematics and was an active participant of Etown’s math club and honor society. In fact, he was president of the honor society his senior year. He was also an RA his junior and senior years.

Hoerl said that, as a math major, all of these extra activities “kept me pretty busy.” He admitted, “There were times when I felt sort of overwhelmed. I wouldn’t say that I had a panic attack, but I would come back to my dorm room and would just say to myself ‘there is no way I can get all of this done.’”

But while at Etown, Hoerl learned an ability that he uses every day at his job with GE Global Research, and that was how to prioritize. He learned that “if you are disciplined and if you manage your time, there is enough time.” Hoerl would tell himself, “You’re going to do whatever you can do and if you can’t do everything, make sure you do the most important stuff.”

This worked well, even giving Hoerl some downtime to hang out at his favorite spot on campus: the gym. Hoerl jokingly called his college self a “frustrated jock,” then explained, “I wasn’t athletic. But I really loved sports, so I played a lot of intramural sports.”

Hoerl’s interests extended past math and sports. Though he did not have a minor, Hoerl took classes in many other areas, including psychology and foreign language. Hoerl was fascinated by psychology and took “a number of psychology courses, but not enough to have a full-on minor.”

In addition to taking German, he also took Russian simply because “it was different and interesting.” Hoerl stated that “as a math major, I learned more math than anything else,” but within Etown’s liberal arts curriculum, Hoerl is proud to say that “I was not only encouraged, but I had to take English and philosophy and sociology and psychology, so I got a broader background which I think broadens you as a person and makes you better able to interact with people of different segments of society.”

Hoerl graduated from Etown in 1979 with his bachelor’s degree in mathematics. Immediately after graduating, Hoerl got married to his wife, Senecca. But he continued his education at the University of Delaware, earning his master’s and doctorate degrees in statistics. In the meantime, his first child was born.

Hoerl is familiar with the mindset of most soon-to-be-graduates of Etown College. The panicked “I’ve got to get a job; anything beyond that is too far off in the distance to worry about” attitude. Hoerl worked with statistics for the companies of DuPont, Hercules and Scott Paper before working his way up to his position of leadership at GE Global Research. But in 2007, when he was awarded the Coolidge Fellowship, he was allowed to choose a subject to study while on sabbatical. Most people expected him to do something math-related, but he chose to go to Africa and study the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Hoerl first became involved with Africa “on a lark.” A friend invited him to go along on a trip to Africa in 2006 and he went merely to keep his friend company and because it was a new place to see. But Hoerl said gravely that, while in Africa, “I saw people dying with my own eyes. I came back just shocked, stunned.” Hoerl may not have had any knowledge in the medical field, but he said, “I know this: this is a disease that’s preventable. It’s a disease that’s treatable, and yet, millions of people are still dying. So, something’s not right here. This doesn’t add up.” He could not help but believe “there has to be some reason why all the money that’s been poured out, billions and billions of dollars hasn’t solved this problem, and I want to figure out what it is.”

Upon finalizing his focus on HIV/AIDS in Africa, Hoerl teamed up with Dr. Presha E. Neidermeyer, a professor at West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics, to study HIV/AIDS for five months, prior to spending a month in his second trip to Africa. He explained, “We decided we needed to do a lot of background research, a lot of reading, as opposed to going to Africa for six months, but we said, ‘we have got to go to Africa because that’s the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic.’” So they did just that, and even published a book on the experience and study called “Use What You Have: Resolving the HIV/AIDS Pandemic.”

Eradicating HIV/AIDS is not going to happen overnight, which Hoerl learned while in Africa. The culture there makes a quick fix unlikely, since some customs shun the use of medication and others promote polygamy and promiscuous behavior, all of which continue to allow the spread of the disease. It is not an easy task telling an entire country that they must change their centuries-old culture. But for Hoerl, “being trained as a mathematician, as a statistician, trained in the scientific method, I look at it very differently and I say, what’s the fundamental problem here? Let me dig a little deeper and figure out, what’s the evidence of the root causes of this problem?”

Many people are under the impression that donating money is the best thing to do, as promoted by many of the celebrities in our media-run society, but Hoerl knows that the true heroes of the struggle against HIV/AIDS are the “little people” working to solve the problem without any exterior motives, such as publicity. Hoerl stresses that it is extremely important for people to realize that “writing checks is a good thing to do, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Giving yourself is a lot better than giving money.”

Now, Hoerl understands that Etown students do not necessarily have the means or time to go to Africa for a month. But he promotes, “You don’t have to go to Africa. You don’t have to do anything exotic, but start early deciding that you want to do something with your life and start thinking, what do I really want to do with my life that really matters?”

Hoerl really enjoys his job at GE Global Research, but laims that “gradually, I started realizing that there’s more to life than working and getting a pay check.” Hoerl wants Etown students to start thinking about what they want to do with their life that is meaningful, along with choosing a career. He urges them to not wait until later in life, but to begin thinking now. Hoerl said passionately, “You need a paycheck to survive, but surviving isn’t living. You know, animals survive, hopefully human beings live.”

Continuing into the future, Hoerl plans to take his own advice. Upon reaching retirement, he plans to take on the role of a full-time humanitarian. He continues to visit Africa every year and has future goals to spend more time in Bulgaria in Eastern Europe where he and his wife first began their humanitarian efforts helping orphanages. But for now, Hoerl is honored to be awarded such a high honor by the College and was thrilled to be back on campus and see the progress the school has made over the years. Upon his return to campus, he said, “In a sense, it’s coming home.”

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