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Some people can play music without taking a single lesson. Mathematics was always like that for N. Scott Urquhart.

The 60-year-old Oregon State University statistics professor first realized his gift for mathematics when his grade school classmates struggled with subtraction.

Man writing on chalkboard.

Statistician N. Scott Urquhart Photo: Tom Gentle

"But it's just addition, backwards," he said to his teacher. "Shhh," the teacher said. "You'll only confuse them."

Urquhart didn't heed that advice. He began tutoring fellow students in the 8th grade and has continued teaching ever since. Along the way, his academic career made him a nationally recognized expert in the teaching of high-level statistics and a respected research collaborator in using statistics with agricultural scientists.

His post-graduate career began with academic posts in the colleges of agriculture at Cornell University and New Mexico State University, where he worked for 20 years before retiring in 1991. It continued later that same year at OSU, where Urquhart has been a part-time research professor in environmental statistics ever since.

The part-time position allows him to help design research studies for an Environmental Protection Agency project to evaluate the ecological condition of streams.

Through funding by the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station, Urquhart also assists researchers by helping design and interpret research projects, including some in bioresource engineering and taste panel evaluations of food treated by pressurization.

Urquhart and Cliff Pereira, an OSU research associate in statistics, conduct a practicum for graduate students in statistics. With their guidance, these students give statistical advice to other students, primarily from the College of Agricultural Sciences. "It gives grad students in statistics experience in consulting," Pereira said. "The students really benefit from Scott's wealth of experience and his sense of humor."

Perhaps that is because mathematics always has been fun and compelling to Urquhart. "Statistics just took me by the nape of the neck," Urquhart said.

His math teachers might have been tempted to grab Urquhart by the neck as well.

"They knew they had to keep me busy to keep me out of trouble," he said. So they encouraged him to move ahead in the textbooks at his own pace. By the time he was 16, Urquhart was working as a teacher's assistant at his high school.

Such work experience proved useful to the son of a widowed mother. She had moved her family to a small Colorado farming community after Urquhart's father died. Her salary as a teacher did not cover his college expenses.

Urquhart learned that math beat the mop when it came to paying tuition and living expenses. "I didn't have to be a statistician to know that $1.50 an hour for running a desk calculator was better than 75 cents an hour for scrubbing the floors in the dorms and gymnasium," Urquhart said.

Urquhart married his high school sweetheart, Lois, at 19. They graduated. She became a teacher, and he went on to earn his master's and doctoral degrees in statistics from Colorado State by the time he was 25. A job offer from Cornell University sent the young couple to New York. Urquhart's assignments there included teaching a class called Introduction to Statistics.

"It was a humdrum class they fobbed off on young faculty," Urquhart said.

Within a few years, enrollment in Urquhart's course had tripled. Even after 25 years, former student Leonard Bull remembers the class well.

"He taught the best course I ever took, either in my graduate or undergraduate years," said Bull, who is now associate vice chancellor for international programs at North Carolina State University. He also is director of the NCSU's Center for Global Competitiveness.

"It was by far the course where I learned the most and have retained the most over the years," Bull said. "I still have all of . . . the 5x7 cards that I used to organize my formulas and aids for those tests in the top right-hand drawer of my desk right now."

Urquhart left Cornell in 1970 to accept a job with New Mexico State University. His research interest at New Mexico State was the application of linear models to discrete probability distributions.

Although he served on numerous statistics organizations, Urquhart's biggest honor during his 20 years at New Mexico State came in 1987, when he was recognized as the outstanding professor on campus with the Westhafer Award.

Awarded annually since 1959, the honor was given to Urquhart for being "a teacher's teacher." The awards program noted: "(Dr. Urquhart) is known to have a genuine interest in his students, a wealth of innovative ideas, and the generosity to share those ideas with others."

Urquhart extends that generosity to his personal life. He and Lois had two sons, then adopted five more children. All are grown and thriving.

Taking advantage of opportunities to explore the wild, Urquhart and his elder sons rafted through the Grand Canyon. He also found ways to combine his love of the wilderness with his work, spending four summers as the statistician on research projects in Alaska: three on a project to identify ways to reduce the environmental impacts of energy exploration on the ecologically sensitive North Slope of Alaska and one summer testing the absorption of European air pollutants by sponge-like lichens.

Urquhart continues to find adventure in mathematics as well. Whether it is helping a rancher understand the meaning of research findings or a food researcher looking for comparisons between methods of food preservation, Urquhart likes to see that it adds up right.