By Lina Sorg
Establishing a career outside of academia—and instead in industry—seems to be a common discussion point among applied mathematicians. A recurring misconception of the limited opportunities in business, industry, and government (BIG) sometimes discourages students and early-career individuals from pursuing careers outside of academia.
At the SIAM Annual Meeting, speakers at an event sponsored by the Preparation for Industrial Careers in Mathematical Sciences (PIC Math) shared their experiences in industry and offered advice for those looking to work beyond academia. The panel was organized by Suzanne Weekes (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) and Michael Dorff (Brigham Young University).
Dr. Jacqueline Ashmore opened the discussion and spoke about her work with sustainable energy technologies. Ashmore is currently the TechBridge Program Lead at the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems (CSE). CSE is a non-profit applied research and development laboratory that aims to commercialize early-stage clean energy technologies and increase their market uptake. Ashmore gave an example of a recent project that involves the development and implementation of novel solar systems for residential rooftops. These so-called plug-and-play PV systems utilize a lightweight module that easily adheres to rooftops and considerably reduces the cost and time of typical PV installation.
Ashmore’s current work involves data analysis, modeling, algorithm development, and system design. Although she doesn’t always use math every day, it forms the backbone of her decision-making and collaborative efforts. “When you become more senior, math and science just become a way of thinking,” she said. “It’s the framework of thinking that gives you the confidence and ability to ask relevant questions.” This type of thinking also involves heavy collaboration with one’s colleagues, as many projects are team-based. “So many of the problems out there these days don’t involve one person locking themselves in a room for 6 months to figure it out,” Ashmore said. “Communication is key in the development world.”
Ashmore also addressed the benefits of an advanced degree. “A master’s and Ph.D. is an indicator of what you’ve accomplished, so there’s a bit of an advantage to that,” she said, before affirming that there are certainly well-respected non-Ph.D. employees at CSC as well. “Don’t do it [a Ph.D.] just for the sake of three letters after your name,” she said. “The people who advance a lot are always willing to learn something new.”
Teixeira has spent the last two years with MITRE, where his work requires extensive data visualization, predictive analytics, and data analysis. “We play an important role in government and industry to deliver game-changing solutions to complex challenges,” he said. Because the government does not always have the tools necessary to solve multifaceted mathematical problems, it provides MITRE with the necessary resources for the company to do so.
Teixeira currently studies how to improve the use of technology in the child welfare system to address problems associated with the system. He and his colleagues conducted a research project to evaluate the high risk factors for child fatalities. MITRE introduced data from other places, such as health and human services and court systems, to further understand what information is useful in understanding signals and knowing when to appropriately intervene.
Teixeira encouraged students interested in working in industry to look for job titles such as software engineer, data scientist, or operations research analyst. “None of us have the title of mathematician,” he said. However, he emphasized that jobs in industry often require mathematics due to the necessary problem-solving and logical thinking that accompany big data. “More data really does mean more math involved,” he said. “We need to be able to break down the problem into sub-problems, or create more innovative algorithms to break down the larger data sets.”
If you are a student at AN16/LS16 and are interested in learning more about industry research, representatives from student research teams will be presenting in sessions throughout the week. Check the conference program for more information.