Public Release: 

Doctoral math students' career options multiply with training program

University of Texas at Dallas

Expertise in mathematical sciences is playing an increasingly important role in professions beyond the classroom and academia, from aiding energy exploration and tracking disease outbreaks to creating high-tech simulations for the automotive, defense and aerospace industries.

Beginning this fall, the Department of Mathematical Sciences at The University of Texas at Dallas is offering new opportunities for doctoral students in mathematics and statistics to prepare them for a wide range of career paths. The project, Team Training Mathematical Scientists through Industrial Collaborations, is funded by a three-year, nearly $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

In this first competition for the new NSF Enriched Doctoral Training (EDT) Program in the Mathematical Sciences, NSF awarded funding to two universities: UT Dallas and Princeton.

"The goal of this project is to enrich training for American citizens or permanent residents who are getting PhDs in the mathematical sciences," said Dr. Susan Minkoff, professor of mathematical sciences at UT Dallas and lead principal investigator of the grant. The project co-PIs are Dr. Yan Cao, Dr. Yulia Gel, Dr. Felipe Pereira and Dr. John Zweck, all faculty members in the Department of Mathematical Sciences.

"Through this initiative, they will gain marketable skills and research experience that prepares them for a variety of careers, both academic and nonacademic."

The objective is to train students so that they are not so narrowly focused on strictly problems in math and statistics, Minkoff said. Students work in teams and with external partners from industry and government labs to develop mathematical and statistical approaches to problems arising in various areas of science, medicine and engineering.

Proposed projects include accounting for breathing movements in medical imaging and cancer radiotherapy treatments; tracking multiple moving targets, such as missiles, using data from multiple sensors; and modeling advanced manufacturing processes.

Four UT Dallas students are taking part in the program this academic year, and six more will be added in each of the next two years. Minkoff said students who complete the nine-month program should be well positioned to continue their projects in a summer internship with the external partners.

"In industry, when you're given a problem to work on there is a pretty quick turnaround expected," Zweck said. "That's not something all people studying math are accustomed to. We typically spend several years digging very deeply into a problem and then come out the other end gradually. With this program, we're trying to bridge a very real gap."

Louis Goldstein, vice president of corporate geoscience at Pioneer Natural Resources, said his company supports the initiative.

"This program provides an excellent opportunity for students to gain exposure to the mathematical tools that are pervasive in the oil and gas industry," he said. "It also provides an excellent opportunity for the students to research and improve the tools available to the geoscientist. I view this type of cross-disciplinary collaboration as a key strength of this program."

Georgia Stuart is one of the doctoral students in the new program, working with Minkoff, Pereira and statistics doctoral student Weihua Yang. With Pioneer as an industrial partner, the team is examining microseismic events -- tiny earthquakes -- associated with energy exploration and recovery.

Stuart previously earned a bachelor's in mathematics from UT Dallas, along with Master of Arts in Teaching degrees in both math education and science education. She has taught classes for in-service teachers for UT Dallas' Department of Science and Mathematics Education.

"Education is my passion, and after graduation I want to continue to work with teachers," Stuart said. "But gaining experience working with industry, and bringing that experience into the classroom with teachers, is really valuable. Many teachers just aren't aware of the career opportunities available to mathematicians."

Gel, one of the faculty co-PIs, said the grant provides an incentive to create interdisciplinary approaches to important problems.

"Very often, math and statistics people do not really talk with each other that much," said Gel, whose research involves applying statistics to environmental modeling, epidemiology, finance and other areas. "We do need that chatter, though, in terms of subject matter. That's how science really should be approached."

Doctoral students Jonathan Popa BS'14 and Kusha Nezafati MS'14 are working with Gel, Zweck and external partner RTI International, a North Carolina-based research institute, on a project that uses social media to predict disease outbreaks, such as the flu.

"In general, I like to see where the math I have learned in the classroom can be applied in the real world," Popa said. "What interested me about this program was the opportunity to work with an outside partner and gain more research experience with faculty members."

In addition to Pioneer and RTI, partners include Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Parkland Center for Clinical Innovations and UT Southwestern Medical Center.

There are 99 doctoral students in the UT Dallas Department of Mathematical Sciences. Minkoff and her colleagues said they hope to expand the program to involve more students and industry partners, including those in Dallas and North Texas.

"We would like to see this program grow and become self-sustaining with the support of long-term partners in industry and business," Minkoff said. "It's not just the students and our partners who will benefit -- the faculty are excited, too, for the opportunity to work collaboratively on topics and with people that we might not ordinarily work with."


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