Biostatistics Alumnus Writing His Own Story


Adam Cunningham, BA ’13, MA ’15, MA ’20, considers his career and life to be not a “single novel with one plot but a series of connected short stories.” The fact that Cunningham has lived and worked on four continents and has degrees in political science, artificial intelligence, math and biostatistics pretty much confirms his notion.

After spending years as a software engineer and then a stay-at-home dad, Cunningham realized that his return to the workforce would mean completely retraining to catch up to where software had evolved. So, he thought, “It was a good time to make a career change.” 

New Paths

His desire for change took him to UB for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math. Because he was interested in further study, specifically in how mathematical models can be applied in the real world, he subsequently also got an MA in biostatistics. (Incidentally, Cunningham hadn’t taken a math class in 28 years and finished his biostatistics master’s when he was 55.)

His time as a grad student inspired Cunningham to create the Probability Playground as part of the qualifying exam for his degree, consulting with Associate Professor Jeffrey Miecznikowski as he worked. Probability Playground is a website to help students who are studying probability theory and probability distributions, in particular. A probability distribution is a mathematical function that can help determine, for example, the failure rate of a product, potential for extreme weather events and the possibilities for numerous other situations.

“There are so many situations where people have to take an introduction to probability theory class. They get introduced to special distributions, which are probability distributions that crop up again and again,” he explained. Cunningham’s background in software engineering, education (he was a teaching assistant in grad school) and statistics gave him a precisely appropriate set of tools for the project. After he presented the website prototype at the flagship conference of the Upstate New York Chapters of the American Statistical Association, he decided to further refine Probability Playground, adding features for accessibility and use on different devices, among others.

A labor of love

Cunningham’s “labor of love” ultimately led him to discuss how and why he developed Probability Playground at the Joint Statistical Meeting (JSM), one of the largest statistical conferences in the world, just last year. JSM attendees each year vote to determine the winner of the Best Contributed Paper Award in the Statistics and Data Science Education Section. And (you can probably guess where this is going), for the first time in the 35-year history of the award, it was won by a paper from a contributor associated with the University at Buffalo, Cunningham, for “Probability Playground: Exploring Probability Distributions through Interaction.”

To Cunningham’s delight, since the paper was published in the proceedings of JSM 2023 a few months ago, he’s learned that interest in Probability Playground is “worldwide. It’s getting thousands of views, and 84 countries around the world are using it.”

Interestingly, Cunningham considers his “magnum opus” to be his master’s project on a scoring system for concussive symptoms, which was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, a leading peer-reviewed medical journal covering sports science and sports medicine.

Cunningham attributes his wide-ranging career and life to his “low boredom threshold. Variety is the spice of life. I’m not disposed toward doing the same thing over and over.” If that’s accurate, stay tuned for his next short story.