SIAM News Blog

Virtual Study Groups Promote Collaborative Industry Experience for Ph.D. Students

Exploring the Virtual Forum for Knowledge Exchange in Mathematical Sciences

By Lina Sorg

The U.K. has a very active industrial mathematics community that connects faculty with graduate students and helps train students for industry positions. When COVID-19 lockdown hit the U.K. unexpectedly in March 2020, researchers sought to keep this community alive. To do so, they established the Virtual Forum for Knowledge Exchange in Mathematical Sciences (V-KEMS). V-KEMS aims to prepare students for industrial careers, support research and modeling efforts that relate to COVID-19, and provide governmental organizations with scientifically-proven policy advice. As such, its driving objectives are as follows: 

  1. Continue engaging with industrial math problems to address evolving challenges for society and the economy, as well as train and prepare graduate students for the workforce 
  2. Mobilize mathematical talent in the fight against COVID-19
  3. Plan for post-COVID-19 economic recovery and the eventual return to the workplace.

Because V-KEMS activities commence entirely online, nearly all universities in the U.K.—and some from outside the country—are involved. During a minisymposium session organized by the SIAM Education Committee at the 2021 SIAM Annual Meeting, which is taking place virtually this week, Chris Budd of the University of Bath overviewed V-KEMS programs. Budd, who is a member of the executive team (see Figure 1), focused his presentation on the forum’s virtual study groups (VSGs). These activities provide practical, hands-on industrial training for faculty and postgraduate students who are preparing to enter the workforce.

Figure 1. Executive team of the Virtual Forum for Knowledge Exchange in Mathematical Sciences (V-KEMS).

V-KEMS’ primary delivery mechanism is the VSG. “A study group is teams working together to solve real problems,” Budd said. “Not made-up problems, but actual raw problems from industry.” The concept of industry study groups has existed for more than 50 years. Over the course of several days, mathematicians work with stakeholders from industry and government to address problems and deliver a product in the form of a report and/or presentation. When in-person interactions halted last spring, V-KEMS repurposed the idea of study groups into the virtual world to foster a sense of connectivity during the pandemic and serve a more diverse community of graduate students. In addition, the Centre for Doctoral Training in Statistical Applied Mathematics at the University of Bath organizes similar integrated think tanks (ITTs) that focus solely on directly training Ph.D. students for industry.

Students and researchers from all over the world partake in VSGs and ITTs. “They are an extremely effective means of knowledge exchange,” Budd said. “It’s also a very effective way to initiate long-term collaborations between universities/academia.” Participants work in teams, share information under strict timeframes (as they would in the workforce), learn how to engage with industry representatives, and practice new mathematical techniques.

VSGs teach other necessary occupational skills as well. For example, students quickly recognize that industry problems are frequently not well formed. “We start with a problem that we think we know, we diverge into a sort of chaotic situation where we throw ideas around, and then it all converges to a solution at the end,” Budd said. “It’s good for students to realize that problems are often like that” (see Figure 2). Working with messy, real-world data allows participants to hone their problem-solving skills and exercise out-of-the-box thinking in an inherently collaborative platform. 

Figure 2. Problem-solving process for messy, real-world industry problems.
Since its formation, V-KEMS has hosted a VSG roughly every two months. Workshops have included topics like “feeding vulnerable people,” “evaluating the UK’s resistance to supply chain shocks,” “COVID-19 safety in crowds,” “impact of COVID-19 on cardiovascular waiting lists,” and “COVID-19 safety at large events.” “One of the more exciting aspects of this is that the results are good enough policies that they go all the way up to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE),” Budd said. “The grad students actually see their work directly advising government, which is very exciting for them.”

Budd then presented three short case studies of previous VSGs for additional context. He began with an overview of the “unlocking the workforce” session, which explored employees’ eventual return to the workplace after COVID-19 subsides. Participants examined four different types of workforces; Budd’s team looked at short interactions with an open group. They formatted this scenario in the context of shopping and investigated the safest way to organize a store. Students utilized an agent-based model to model the shoppers, accounted for viral transport among people in the crowd, and simulated the whole scenario in MATLAB. Ultimately, they calculated the viral load for different aspects of shopping and generated guidelines for the retail industry.

A second workshop on “unlocking higher education”—which featured many university representatives—considered the safety of university buildings, the campus, and the surrounding community. Participants used fluid dynamics to analyze this scenario, and the resulting report about the safety of lecture halls (in terms of number of students and length of exposure time) was sent to SAGE. “Students were having a direct impact on their own environment, and this work has gone on to advise university executives,” Budd said.

Another VSG focused on “reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission on trains.” Attendees included academics and Ph.D. students, railway specialists, and government experts. This workshop addressed three scales: modeling the train carriage (airflow, seating design, and passenger allocation), modeling the journey (static versus dynamic, passenger movement, loading and unloading), and scheduling across the country (passenger allocation, high times for rail usage, schedule resilience during an outbreak). The session was so successful that railway personnel offered funding afterwards. Budd split the funds among the graduate students, who then conducted follow-up research and interacted directly with the rail industry.

Budd ended his talk with a few comments about diversity. “The virtual world is much more diverse than the face-to-face world because you can include people who would otherwise have restraints,” he said. For instance, the absence of physical travel means that students from other areas of the world can participate without limitation. Budd has observed a greater sense of mathematical diversity as well, in that both pure and applied mathematicians routinely partake in VSGs.

V-KEMS and VSGs enrich participants’ backgrounds in applied mathematics, provide hands-on experience in different practical scenarios, and grow communication networks in industry settings. “V-KEMS is very inclusive and highly international,” Budd said. “We’d be super happy to have grad students from all over the world come along.”

Lina Sorg is the managing editor of SIAM News.
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