STEM Career Series: Math Majors

Here we are in the last installment of the Comlinkdata STEM Career Series. Big shout out to Karla Mejia, a Data Analyst on our DataOps team, Justin Bosma, a QA Analyst on our Product Team and Isa Daher, a Senior Data Analyst on the DevOps and R&D team for helping make this blog happen!

  1.    Where did you go to school?

Karla: University of Texas at Austin, math and economics

Justin: Northeastern University, math and computer science

Isa: Carnegie Mellon University, math sciences with a concentration in operations research and statistics

  1.    Why did you pick your major?

K: I became a math major halfway through my double major in philosophy and economics after taking upper-division economics courses in-game theory and computational economics, where I discovered the power of mathematical modeling in tackling interesting problems ranging from predicting stock prices in financial markets to modeling the spread of infectious disease.

J:  I started attending community college with the desire to study physics, mostly from a music/sound focus. While taking Calculus, I found out a girl I had a crush on was attending math club, so I decided to go as well. She didn’t come after that day and I somehow wound up becoming president. It was around this time that I realized much of the music/sound related areas in physics were dated, whereas the mathematical and computer intersections with music seemed infinite, and chose to change my major.

I: I was that one weird kid who loved calculus in high school. I started at CMU in the math department, with the naive belief that a math major would just be a more advanced version of high school calc. I quickly realized how wrong I was. I went through a bit of shell shock and explored bio, econ, mechanical engineering, and a few other majors, but by the end of freshman year I had discovered how much I loved the problem solving foundational to mathematics.

  1.    How have you incorporated your major into your current role?

K: I use the programming skills I learned in my applied economics and math classes every day. Even though I’m working in different languages with different software, the fundamentals remain the same. Even though I’m not solving any math problems or writing any proofs, the ability to take apart a problem and verifying that each piece of it is logically consistent has been invaluable.

J: Doing QA can be very similar to trying to prove a conjecture or statement. First, you must try to find any weakness and exploit it, turning everything on its side. If the statement still seems valid, the hard part then becomes proving without a doubt that it holds in any and every case. You have to have the same mindset in QA. Try as hard as you can to break something, and if not possible, find a way to convince yourself that this addition isn’t going to have any adverse effects down the road.

I: When I started at CLD I had never used SQL, but I found that my understanding of basic set theory allowed me to quickly come up to speed on how tables are structured, how they relate in different ways, and how best to query them. In my stats classes, one of the things we learned how to do was to take a data set, perform analysis on it, and write a report that could be easily read and understood by someone unfamiliar with the data and techniques you’re using. Part of this was exploratory work, to understand the data you’re dealing with. I’d say this exploratory part has been most relevant to the analysis work I’ve done at CLD: understanding what’s going on, and displaying it in a way that makes sense. Finally, like Karla said, I use the programming skills I learned at CMU every single day.

  1.    What advice would you give to future math majors?

K: Don’t be afraid to pair your math major with whatever else you find interesting because math is a good complement to any field of study. Also, make sure you get internship and/or research experience! No matter how smart and charming you are, it will be hard to find a cool job or get into a respectable graduate program without relevant experience.

J: For students early on in undergrad, don’t belittle things that aren’t mathematical. It benefits you to be well-rounded. Don’t put yourself in one group or another like applied versus pure – don’t limit yourself. You can specialize in one area but don’t hyper-specialize. For juniors and seniors, don’t be afraid of hard classes. Don’t be afraid of B’s or C’s. In my last year and a half I did graduate level research and classes and looking back on it, I did it and my exposure to that was better than taking the easy way out.

I:  Take your time when you’re first starting out, and do your due diligence to learn the basics. So much of what you’ll learn builds on itself, and if you don’t have a solid foundation the rest will be shaky. Get outside your comfort bubble and go apply to do research, internships, summer jobs — anything that will help you figure out how to use the skills you’re learning. Most of all though, always remember that math applies to everything. The problem solving skills you’ve learned will allow you to jump into other fields with ease.

  1.    What is a funny/weird/strange way you’ve used math in life or at CLD?

K: I don’t fall for advertisements or news articles that report misleading statistics. Also, when watching movies or TV shows, I can tell when the “intense” calculations or mathematical proofs on the blackboards of fictional scientists or engineers are total gibberish.

J: I used various principles from stochastics and ideas from set theory (introduced by David Lewin) to create a random melody generator. It would create random melodies, then create weights for the similarity of one melody to another based on pitch intervals. These were then stuck into a Markov Chain that would allow the transition from one melody to another. Other areas I have researched are the applications of Topology to the Tonnetz and understandings of voice leadings via various metrics. Currently, I am working on an algebraic system for creating and operating on poetry.

I: Whenever I’m walking somewhere new, I always try to figure out the optimal route in my head: which route is the shortest distance, how do I time crossing the street to hit the highest number of walk signals without waiting, etc.

Thanks for being a part of our STEM Career Series blog. Check out the previous Science, Tech and Engineering blogs to learn more about our team members and the advice they shared.