Friday, July 10, 2009

UCLA Mathematics Department Career Day 2009

I was honored to be asked to be on the alumni panel for the 2009 installment of the UCLA Mathematics Department career day this past May 13, 2009. There were six of us on the panel, quite an eclectic group for sure, across a variety of industries – high school math teacher, Google employee, real estate maven, aerospace researcher, financial services manager, and a physics groupie (me). On the audience side, about 40 undergraduate students were in attendance, sitting on the edge of their seats and hanging on our every word. It’s great to influence young minds.

I really enjoy telling folks, especially young folks, about my quirky and odd professional history. My motto has always been “Why be normal?” as I love being on the fringe of the Bell Curve in most everything I do. The idea behind the career day was for us math alumni to showcase our professional experience and how we’ve used mathematics in our jobs. I truly think that math had a positive effect on just about every job I’ve had. I worked at a defense contractor that designed radar systems, so I needed to learn signal processing in designing algorithms. I then moved to a life insurance company and was faced with actuary math. Then I went into the financial software sector where complex yield calculations were de rigueur. So math was always there, at each turn of my career. In all of my jobs, I always felt more adept at problem solving with the analytical skills I took from my days at UCLA. I recounted for the group how I often would be shocked at how my coworkers, in some cases my bosses, approached solving a problem. I remember some pretty atrocious methods.

I think the group of math undergrads appreciated our input based on the questions they came up with. One young woman who was a JC transfer in her first year at UCLA as a junior had a particularly telling question. She meekly raised her hand and asked “I feel that some of the math classes I’m in now are so hard, and everyone else seems to be getting by, but I’m concerned. What should I do?” The panel was all over that question with helpful hints and tips. I told her to be sure to never miss a discussion session (led by a TA) and always attend the professor’s office hours. I remember how much I got out of office hours. A professor often gives useful indications about what will be on an exam during office hours. Plus getting to know a professor a bit more intimately makes the learning experience more personal and you feel like investing more of yourself in doing the best you can. As a freshman, I took this advice a little further. I used to see my calculus professor in the men’s weight room pumping iron. I would offer to spot him on the bench press, and we’d chat about class. Then in office hours, I’d bring up the weight room. It was a nice balance.

After the formal panel discussion, there was a reception where the students could mingle with the panel. I enjoyed that part of the event very much. I talked to a number of up and coming mathematicians who seemed to be very gifted. One young man was nearly through with his undergrad degree after only three years of intense study. He was planning to go on to grad school in math. A young woman asked about how I started my own business. And I brought up the Science Lifestyle to everyone I spoke to, trying to spread the word about living a life of science. I hope some of what I said stuck to a few of them.

[Of course one option after getting a degree in mathematics is to become a famous actress and then write math books for teenage girls! See the attached image of Danica McKellar who graduated from UCLA summa cum laude with a degree in math, then starred in “The Wonder Years,” and then wrote two excelent books “Math Doesn’t Suck” and “Kiss My Math.”]

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