Mathematician saves Veerpalu honour

Krista Fischer

PHOTO: A.Peegel

Upon initial news of Andrus Veerpalu’s positive doping test,  took no stand. As a scientist, she had no reason to believe the tests used to prove doping might not work. And, nor reason to believe that Mr Veerpalu verily had sinned with banned substance. A well-balanced person, she didn’t rush to rallies supporting the skier, nor did she join the We Believe Andrus Veerpalu Facebook community.

Back in the winter of 2011, this mild mannered lady never dreamed she would turn out a main hero in solving the case shocking the entire Estonia. And that the hidden role would come at the expense of her most precious possession, the family. For hours, she had to burn the midnight oil, in addition to her principal job as biostatistician at Estonian Genome Centre.

In hindsight, Ms Fischer is grateful to her family, especially to husband Urmo with his medical education, helping along with terminology. For, in spite of her doctorate as mathematician and seven years as docent in Tartu University medical faculty, and three years at UK Cambridge University biostatistics department, medical nuances weren’t crystal clear to her.

A unique role was also played by the family’s beloved golden retriever Lennu – who took her to walks, helping to concentrate, and with whose photo, at court, a statistical detail called allocation tale was explained.

Even by the time she was invited to Mr Veerpalu’s defence team as statistician by Sulev Kõks, Ms Fischer had developed no preconceived ideas. Smelling an exciting job, Ms Fischer took no time to say yes, never racking her brains whether Mr Veerpalu had done something dark or not. Diving headlong into the interesting statistical stuff, she was still subconsciously aware somebody’s destiny was in the balance. And, out of compassion, she was willing to help.

As the work proceeded, it proved not a challenge, really, for a statistician. Rather, working with experts of other fields was exciting. Routinely confined to academic circles, Ms Fischer was now forced to make herself understood by other team-members and sports arbitration. And indeed, she is famed for her ability to make complicated stuff sound simple.

At defence team meetings, she first met Mr Veerpalu in person. Usually silent, listening to specialists talk, the skier instilled confidence. And, having been able to converse with him a couple of times, Ms Fischer developed an inner conviction she was with an honest person.

The truth be told, Ms Fischer never has been a sports fan. Sure, in nice winter days, skiing a little bit will do just fine. And, as fellow Estonians skied for medals, she naturally rejoiced. And that was all. Instead of sports, as a schoolgirl she was fascinated by the world of numbers and figures, as well as biology. Therefore, after high school, she long contemplated which way to go. Deciding upon mathematics after hearing that mathematicians will be able to help the biologists, in their work.

Ms Fischer agrees not with claims that mathematics is dry and boring. Being one of the select few who see beauty behind figures and formulas. And being convinced that what she does is to the benefit of many – therefore opting to work at Genome Centre. And, according to colleagues, she surely has a bright professional future.

With abundance of interviews on Tuesday and little time to celebrate the victory, Ms Fischer now feels relieved. A big job is done. However, she’s not sure she’d take it up again. The possibility still remains, however, as, in the name of honesty and transparency in science and statistics, Mr Fischer is willing to fight.