A Formula for the Future

November 11, 2014

Sky Kalfus

White board with math equations
Photo credit: Yvette Chen

Professor of Mathematics Susan Colley has been teaching in the math department for more than 30 years, but she has yet to observe a trend in the careers of her alumni. “It’s all over the map,” says Colley. For students of the Oberlin math department, many of whom are double majors, graduate school in mathematics is not always in the cards. Instead, alumni are choosing to apply their analytical reasoning skills to fields ranging from social justice to biology.

Thanks to his background in computer science, mathematics, and activism, Isaac Hollander McCreery ’14 took the Data Science For Social Good summer fellowship offered by the University of Chicago. The fellowship brought together people with diverse expertise: scientists with degrees in sociology, computer science, and statistics. McCreery was part of a team of 48 students who worked alongside the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness. Together, they statistically analyzed the effectiveness of existing services for the homeless in Chicago.

Working through a mountain of raw data collected by the Alliance, McCreery wrote programs designed to identify notable trends. Much of the data was incomplete, and the team spent weeks cleaning out unreliable information. McCreery was new to this kind of work, but he hit the ground running. "I never took any statistics at Oberlin. I did not have as much of a background as I would like. But my expertise was decent, due to my liberal arts education.” McCreery is currently applying his newly honed data analysis skills by volunteering with Baye’s Impact, a data science group with an emphasis on social welfare.

Chris Rackauckas ’13 is also pursuing a career that integrates diverse bodies of knowledge. At Oberlin, Rackauckas picked up minors in physics, economics, and computer science to supplement his mathematics degree. Now at the University of California at Irvine, Rackauckas is pursuing a doctoral degree in mathematics and biomedical engineering through the Mathematical, Computational, and Systems Biology Gateway Program. His research focuses on theoretical developmental biology, or the molecular underpinnings behind large-scale biological behavior.

Rackauckas first learned about dynamical systems, a way to model how things change, while doing climate modeling research with Professor of Mathematics Jim Walsh at Oberlin. Now he examines the unpredictable behavior of molecules through stochastic dynamical systems, which, he explains, “are about how things change when there is randomness involved. Now you have probability involved, but it’s the same general idea as dynamical systems.”

With funding from a National Institute of Health training grant, a National Science Foundation fellowship, and a Ford fellowship, Rackauckas has a degree of freedom from his department that allows him to pursue his own interdisciplinary research interests. “I’m actually in a lab here,” Rackauckas says. “What I was really interested in about this program was that you can get deeply involved with the mathematics and the science at the same time. And I jumped right into playing with the fish. I come here all the time to inject the fish and see how the model actually compares with reality.”

Meanwhile, senior Sarita Beekie is hoping to pursue a career in K-12 mathematics education. At Oberlin, she has spent time using her math background to critically assess the department itself: Last summer she worked for the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC) doing statistical analysis of the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of STEM students. The project was part of an ongoing effort by the MRC to understand and improve the academic experience of first generation students and students of color. Beekie is also completing a minor in rhetoric and composition, which further serves her commitment to education.

For Oberlin math students, a degree in mathematics is not an end in itself, but rather a powerful tool that can be applied to all kinds of intellectual pursuits.

“There’s one thing I would tell everyone at Oberlin,” says Rackauckas. “Use the fact that it is a liberal arts college. Everything I studied at Oberlin, I use in my research. The way I learned mathematics in relation to everything else is really what matters.”

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