November 23, 2020

Statistician uses data to change lives for the better, was drawn to university's mission of inclusion

Editor’s note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now’s year in review. Read more top stories from 2020.

When Sally C. Morton was about 4 years old, her father would come home every night and ask her to count his change. It was a task she took seriously.

Now she realizes that he did it because he knew she loved numbers — numbers and math and the beauty of the way they fit together.

That passion led Morton to an acclaimed career as a statistician. She is internationally recognized for her pioneering work on the use of statistics and data science to help patients and their health care providers make better decisions. During her career, she has led complex organizations at both academic and industrial institutions. 

Now Morton will be the first woman to take the reins of Arizona State University’s Knowledge Enterprise, an organization with annual research expenditures of $640 million on subjects ranging from space exploration to food systems. As executive vice president, she will be responsible for enhancing ASU’s research competitiveness, strengthening and diversifying the university’s research portfolio, forging strategic partnerships with public- and private-sector industries, helping launch new companies and developing international ties. 

“I’m tremendously honored and excited to be joining ASU,” Morton said. “There is no more important time than now given the issues facing the world to conduct research of importance to our society. We need to do so using transdisciplinary approaches, integrated into our educational mission, and in partnership with industry and our communities. ASU Knowledge Enterprise is the place to make this difference.”

Morton comes from Virginia Tech, where she served as dean of the College of Science, as well as interim director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. Previously, she was chair of biostatistics at the University of Pittsburgh, vice president for statistics and epidemiology at RTI International, and head of the RAND Corporation Statistics Group. 

She holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematical sciences, a master’s degree in operations research and a doctoral degree in statistics, all from Stanford University, as well as a master’s degree in statistics from the London School of Economics. Morton served as president of the American Statistical Association (ASA) and is a fellow of the ASA and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She received the Janet L. Norwood Award for Outstanding Achievement by a Woman in the Statistical Sciences in 2017.

“Sally is an unbelievably accomplished scholar in her field and will bring tremendous focus, discipline and rigor to our mission of attaining the highest public value and impact through our research activities,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow.

Throughout her career Morton has been mission-driven, working on such societal issues as mental illness, homelessness, gun violence and death penalty sentencing. ASU’s mission inspired her to join the university.

“Arizona State University is at the forefront of where public research institutions need to be,” she said. “Once I understood the university’s mission more fully — we are whom we include rather than whom we exclude — that really resonated with me. Coming to Arizona State will give me the opportunity to collaborate with people across the university who are dedicated to this mission and educating the next generation. Knowledge Enterprise is a unique and innovative ecosystem in which to advance research that serves the public and our communities. I became a statistician to change the world, and ASU is the place to do that.”

Morton will begin her new post on Feb. 1, 2021, replacing Sethuraman Panchanathan, who served as executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise and chief research and innovation officer before moving into his current role as director of the National Science Foundation in June. Neal Woodbury has served as interim executive vice president and chief science and technology officer since then and will move to the role of vice president for research and chief science and technology officer. 

Top photo of Sally C. Morton courtesy of Virginia Tech

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

480-727-4502