SIAM News Blog

SIAM Columbia Chapter Broadens Audience With 2012 “Math-Startup Collaborative Meetup”

By Vighnesh Subramanyan, Willie Neiswanger, and Ilana Lefkovitz

On February 29, the Columbia University Chapter of SIAM hosted this year’s “Math-Startup Collaborative Meetup.” The event, held annually over the last few years at Columbia, exposes students majoring in mathematics and other quantitative disciplines to the exciting opportunities awaiting them in the burgeoning startup community in New York City. The goal is to raise awareness of mathematically oriented career paths that lie outside the finance sector, which has been a popular destination for many Columbia students. Startup companies based in Silicon Alley face plenty of quantitative problems, and they need smart students or graduates to crack them.

Traditionally, the Meetup has been geared toward graduate students in mathematics and applied mathematics. But this year, the Columbia Chapter opened the event to the greater university population, including undergraduates and students in such fields as statistics, computer science, economics, and business. To help build this wider audience, the chapter—for the first time—formed collaborations with Columbia Business School and the Application Development Initiative (ADI), the software development group on campus, which co-sponsored the event.

From left to right: Blake Shaw, Mike Dewar, and Ky Harlin—from New York City-based startups Foursquare, Bitly, and Buzzfeed, respectively, and all former students at Columbia—shared their expertise and experiences at this year’s “Math-Startup Collaborative Meetup,” an annual event hosted by the Columbia University Chapter of SIAM.
The chapter was very excited to welcome a number of prominent mathematicians and data scientists hailing from New York City-based startups, including Bitly, Foursquare, Buzzfeed, Sailthru, and Codecademy. This year’s event was particularly notable in that, for the first time, all the speakers had studied at Columbia. The presenters discussed the role that math plays at their companies and in their daily lives, and fielded questions about the projects they’ve tackled since entering the startup world. Audience members were able to get a unique look at the practices, tools, and data used on a daily basis at these companies.

(Readers can find two interactive examples of recent Bitly data team projects on the Internet—a map produced in conjunction with Forbes magazine that highlights what Americans are reading and what news outlets are popular in certain geographic areas and a graph on the Bitly blog, created in collaboration with Scientific American that visualizes how people who read about science see the Internet. The graph, which is based on the tracking of “click” patterns of readers in different scientific fields, also appeared in the magazine’s December 2011 issue.)

The presenters, who are almost all data scientists, implement machine learning algorithms, statistics, and other mathematical tools on a daily basis. Working for the most part with huge amounts of data generated by millions of users of Foursquare, Bitly, and others, they are the ones who try to make sense of the data, identifying important user trends, among other things. A reception following the event gave students the chance to become better acquainted with the presenters and with each other.

The event was a great success, with over a hundred undergraduate and graduate students, as well as alumni, in attendance. Students left with a better understanding of career options in the private sector that require the quantitative and problem-solving skills they have developed through their coursework, outside the escalating migration to finance. “Very rarely do you get to learn about so many interesting problems in the emerging field of start-ups, and for me, it was a great opportunity to discover the people working on them,” says computer science student Justin Hines. “The event made the entire sphere that much more tangible, which is an incredible feeling.”

Ultimately, the organizers hoped that the event would inspire a new generation of students in quantitative disciplines to put their skills to use in building new companies, helping not only to re-invigorate the technology startup scene in New York and beyond, but also to contribute to an economic revival in the country.

Vighnesh Subramanyan, Willie Neiswanger, and Ilana Lefkovitz are all applied mathematics majors at Columbia University. 

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