Actuarial science program shines brightly during 2022 Charles Wexler Awards

May 13, 2022

Arizona State University student Charlotte Cliatt is the recipient of the 2022 Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize, the highest honor a mathematics undergraduate can receive. She is graduating this month with a Bachelor of Science in actuarial science and plans to return to ASU in the fall to complete her master’s degree as part of the university's 4+1 program.

When she found out she would be honored as the recipient of the Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize, Cliatt was at a loss for words. 2022 Charles Wexler Awards Recipients, Raymond Ye Zhang and Charlotte Cliatt 2022 Charles Wexler Awards recipients Raymond Ye Zhang and Charlotte Cliatt. Download Full Image

“It is difficult to describe the feeling of exceeding even my own expectations for myself, but I remember that I couldn’t stop smiling,” Cliatt said. “Being named the recipient of this prize is a representation of all the goals I’ve been able to accomplish in three short years in the actuarial science program. I am so proud to represent this program, as I attribute all my academic and professional success to the actuarial science community, including faculty, mentors and fellow students who have supported me every step of the way.”

Joining her is Raymond Ye Zhang, recipient of the 2022 Charles Wexler Teaching Award, the highest honor a faculty member can receive from the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. Zhang joined ASU as a lecturer in 2015 and has taught courses in actuarial science, statistics and calculus. Cliatt and Zhang are shining examples of the success of the actuarial science program at ASU.

“Teaching is one of my life passions, and receiving the Charles Wexler Teaching Award is definitely one of the most memorable moments in my short teaching career,” Zhang said. “I would like to thank all my colleagues for the support over the years – particularly Professor Al Boggess for giving me this job opportunity, Professor of Practice Jelena Milovanovic for providing me with the chance to teach actuarial science courses and countless advice to help me succeed, Senior Lecturer Diane Richardson for offering me mentorship and guidance for teaching introductory statistics, and Principal Lecturers Dongrin Kim and Douglas Williams and Clinical Assistant Professor Marko Samara for evaluating my teaching performance and giving valuable feedback. I deeply appreciate it!”

The Charles Wexler Awards were established in 1977 in memory of Professor Charles Wexler, with a gift from his wife, Helen, to honor his accomplishments in the field of mathematics and his contributions to the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. Wexler was the founding chairman of the Department of Mathematics at ASU. At the time of his retirement, he had accumulated 47 years of service, the longest period of faculty service in the university’s history. In 1977, the A-Wing of the Physical Sciences Center was named after Wexler in appreciation of his outstanding service to the university from 1930 until 1977.

Since the university was still discouraging large in-person events through the end of the spring semester, the 45th annual Charles Wexler Awards ceremony was changed to a smaller virtual format. Jonathan Wexler, son of Charles Wexler, was able to join from Sunnyvale, California, via Zoom.

Charlotte Cliatt

Cliatt’s parents are both Air Force Academy graduates and their jobs moved the family from coast to coast, and even overseas to Paris, France. After Cliatt completed third grade, her family moved from Paris back to the U.S. to be closer to family. They settled in Colorado Springs, Colorado, about an hour south of Denver, near Pikes Peak.

She graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and knew she wanted to attend college out of state. After visiting ASU during spring break of her senior year, she fell in love with the campus. Ideally, Cliatt wished for the abundance of opportunities a large university has to offer, while also being a part of a tight-knit community. She was able to achieve her ideal by enrolling in Barrett, The Honors College, where she started as a biochemistry major interested in medicine.

Before attending ASU, Cliatt did not know what an actuary was. It was not until her first year at ASU that she discovered the profession and decided to switch her major to actuarial science.

“I like to think of it as a leap of faith, as I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into,” Cliatt said. “The moment I knew I had made the right choice to switch my major to actuarial science was when I passed my first actuarial exam. Although challenging and time-consuming, studying for and passing the exam was such a rewarding feeling. I’ve been hooked on actuarial science ever since.”

Despite the remote learning environment of the fall 2020 semester, Cliatt was able to make friends in her ACT 201 Introduction to Elements and Techniques of Actuarial Science class. She also connected with the actuarial science faculty, including Professor of Practice Jelena Milovanovic.

“Dr. Milovanovic has supported me from the very beginning, even when I didn’t believe in myself. She has always reassured me that I am capable of accomplishing my goals, specifically completing the actuarial science 4+1 program,” Cliatt said. “Dr. Milovanovic and I have become close over the years, as she was my undergraduate honors thesis director and I will be working with her for my applied project. I don’t think that a lot of other majors have access to mentors like Dr. Milovanovic and I am grateful for the impact that she has had on not only my education but also my life.”

Cliatt received the New American University President’s Award and earned a spot on the dean’s list every semester. She was also awarded the Actuarial Strategies and Tactics Scholarship and the Arizona Chartered Property Casualty Underwriters (CPCU) Society Chapter Scholarship.

This academic year, Cliatt participated in the WSIA White Paper Contest, researching the effect of pandemic risks on the workers’ compensation excess and surplus (E&S) market. She also completed her undergraduate thesis for Barrett, The Honors College, “To Retire or Not to Retire: Will pension plans keep their promise when the time comes?” She completed a literature review of the American retirement system, specifically pension plans, and plans to continue researching this topic for her applied project during her master’s degree.

Cliatt believes the best thing about the actuarial science program at ASU is the Gamma Iota Sigma Kappa Chapter, also known as GIS at ASU. GIS fulfills a mission of promoting and sustaining student interest in careers in insurance, risk management and actuarial science. The GIS at ASU student chapter encouraged Cliatt to build lifelong friendships with other students in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, as well as connect with the local actuarial science community. GIS at ASU offers members the opportunity to attend career fairs, participate in mock interview nights and participation in case study competitions at both local and national levels.

“As a young actuarial student, I had the chance to build my resume and practice my interview skills, allowing me to receive multiple internship offers. Now, as part of the leadership team, it has been so rewarding to coordinate these events for members,” said Cliatt. “If I could redo my undergraduate degree, I would still choose to study actuarial science. I would 100% recommend the actuarial science program to others. I have become so much more confident in myself as not only a student, but also a leader.”

John Zicarelli served as an actuary in industry for over 25 years and now enjoys giving back to the community as a professor of practice in ASU’s actuarial science program.

“I expect Charlotte to be a highly sought-after candidate when she enters the job market. And her leadership skills and get-it-done attitude should support a successful professional and management career,” Zicarelli said.

We asked Cliatt to share more about her journey as a Sun Devil at ASU.

Question: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

Answer: My biggest piece of advice, and something I continually remind myself of, is that one grade on an exam or an assignment is not the end of the world. There is no need to beat yourself up over one poor performance, as it is much more productive to move on and continue to work hard.

Q. What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I always used to think the mathematics was an objective subject matter. However, after attending joint meetings with GIS at ASU and MORE (the Mathematical Organization for Rehumanizing Education) club, I have learned that this is in fact not the case, and that there are inequities that exist in mathematics education. This has changed my perspective, as it prompted me to reflect on my own experience as a woman studying actuarial science and has opened my eyes as to how I too can promote diversity and inclusivity in the classroom.

Q. Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Terri Miller taught me one of the most valuable things to know as a student: how to study. The challenge of her Calculus II exams pushed me to question my study methods and figure out what really worked for me. I am now able to study more efficiently, and as a result, am a better test taker.

Q. What is most misunderstood about mathematics by the general public?

A: I think people tend to label themselves “good at math” or “bad at math,” when really, people just learn math in different ways. If math didn’t get such a bad rap, I think people would be willing to give it another chance, and maybe, they would love it!

Q. What do you like to do in your spare time (when not studying or doing school related tasks)?

A: As an extrovert, I love spending time with friends in my free time. I have been so lucky to meet so many amazing friends while at ASU. I also enjoy listening to music, taking cycling classes and playing golf.

Q. What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on campus is Wexler Hall. It has become a place of comfort for me, as I’ve spent so much time there in classes and GIS meetings, tutoring in MC^2, or just hanging out with classmates in the breezeway.

Q. If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: With $40 million, I would work to provide low-cost reliable internet access to Americans. The pandemic has emphasized how advantageous remote learning can be, making education more accessible to students anywhere and everywhere. However, remote learning can be anything but advantageous without access to internet, hindering the performance of students who want to learn but don’t have the resources to do so.

Raymond Ye Zhang

Raymond Ye Zhang spent his childhood in China and Toronto, Canada. He earned his PhD in 2014 in statistics and actuarial science from Western University in London, Ontario, Canada. He became interested in sports analytics and wanted to gain a deeper understanding, and studying mathematics and statistics seemed like a great path.

“I started to realize I have a passion for teaching in graduate school when I worked as a teaching assistant,” Zhang said.

Zhzng’s teaching versatility spans traditional mathematics and statistics courses, as well as actuarial science courses. In the undergraduate program, he frequently teaches STP 421 Probability, STP 420 Introduction to Statistics, ACT 410/510 Mathematics of Finance, ACT 415/515 Probability for Risk Management, ACT 430/530 Mathematics of Financial Derivatives and ACT 491 Exam Prep Seminar.

His favorite course to teach is ACT 410 Mathematics of Finance. The course includes challenging concepts but also allows students to discover real-life applications of those concepts.

Zhang was selected for the Charles Wexler Teaching Award based on his strong teaching evaluations and many nominations by students over the past several years. Excerpts from student nominations reflect how students respect and appreciate Zhang.

  • "Raymond is a phenomenal professor. I feel like I perform the best and learn the most in classes where Raymond is my professor."

  • "Raymond is the best teacher. Not only does he have immense knowledge of the courses, he can break it down into ways students understand. He goes the entire class without using any notes and explains how to do every single step and why he does it. The content we learn is very hard, takes lots of practice and lots of questions. Raymond responds to emails with questions promptly and clearly helps with whatever question asked. He is always happy to have students in his office hours firing away questions. He cares a lot about his students and is always excited to help and support them."

  • "He is the most patient professor I've ever had and always does his best to make sure everyone understands what he teaches. He cares a lot about his students and I am always excited to participate in class when he is teaching. I wish I could have him as a professor for more of my classes."

  • "Professor Zhang is one of the most approachable professors I have taken class from. You can tell he wants each of his students to succeed and that he is willing to do whatever he can to help us understand material and perform well on assignments and exams. Professor Zhang is flexible about making office hours appointments and always knows the answers to our questions. His class structure — even when taking classes online — was one that I enjoyed. Two of the courses I had with Professor Zhang were four-credit courses that met twice a week for an hour and 40 minutes, which is longer than most of my class periods. Luckily, he was able to keep me engaged and eager to learn that the classes went by fast, and I looked forward to them each week. Lastly, the classes I have taken with Professor Zhang have been some of the courses in which I have felt the most confident with my understanding of the material. He deserves to win this award because not only is he a great professor, but he is willing to put in as much effort as his students are to assure our success in his classes and our careers in math."

  • "In every class I have had Dr. Zhang he works tirelessly to not only teach but make sure veryone in the classroom is understanding the material and feels safe in his classroom. Dr. Zhang goes above and beyond what is expected of a professor and is constantly accessible and makes review videos well beyond any professor I have ever had. I also completed an honors contract in STP 420 with Dr. Zhang where he allowed me to explore my passions while also incorporating statistics. I truly believe Dr. Zhang is the gem of the actuarial department and deserves the recognition that this award entails. He is also very involved with Gamma Iota Sigma and constantly strives to give students the best opportunity to succeed outside of the classroom."

While working at ASU, Zhang has taught students from a variety of backgrounds, from introductory level to more advanced courses.

“I have learned to actively adopt my teaching method to suit students' particular needs, and most importantly to show them you care. Students are not dumb. They can always tell whether or not you care about their learning and will only respond to you if you care,” he said.

We asked Zhang to share more about his experiences at ASU.

Question: What advice would you give to university students thinking of possibly majoring in mathematics?

Answer: Mathematics offers many career opportunities, but each person is different. Decide for yourself if this is the right field for you. The worst thing is coming to a job that you hate even if everyone else admires what you do.

Q: What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about math by the general public?

A: Being good at math is just about performing calculations without a calculator.

Q: Where is your favorite spot on campus, and why?

A: Sun Devil Fitness Center. Been physically active all my life. Working out is the way to keep my sanity no matter how hectic life gets.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time for fun?

A: Working out, watching basketball and soccer, learning history and different cultures, travelling, catching up on latest movies and many more.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: At this moment, give it to children being affected by wars in Ukraine and Yemen, even though that amount is nowhere near sufficient.

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences


First-generation student awarded grant for cross-linguistic doctoral research

May 13, 2022

A passion for less commonly taught languages is at the "heart" of doctoral student Gina Scarpete Walters’ dissertation research. In fact, her work examines how that word appears across different languages and cultures.                                                                                                               

“My research represents a cross-linguistic and cross-cultural study of the metaphorical conceptualizations of the word 'heart,'” Scarpete Walters said. “Specifically, it will investigate variation and universality in metaphorical conceptualizations of 'heart,' as well as the emotions associated with them, using a cognitive semantic approach.”  Gina Scarpete Walters smiles at the camera. She is wearing a teal blouse or dress. She has long brown wavy hair that is pulled over one shoulder. She is wearing black framed glasses and red lipstick. Behind her are many black shelves filled with books. Doctoral student Gina Scarpete Walters was recently awarded a grant that will help fund research and data collection for her dissertation and related projects. Her work looks at metaphorical conceptualizations of the word "heart" across five different languages. Download Full Image

She recently was awarded a NFMLTA-NCOLCTL (National Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations and National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages) Graduate Research Support Grant, which will help fund textual research and the planning and execution of the first phase of data collection for her project.  

Scarpete Walters’ research will bring together five languages: Romanian, Modern Greek and Albanian (which are part of the Balkan Sprachbund, a linguistic area consisting of languages that belong to various branches of Indo-European), and Piipaash and O’odham (which represent two large families of North American languages, Yuman and Uto-Aztecan).

Her dissertation will discuss the findings from the three Balkan languages, and a separate study will be devoted to the two Indigenous languages, both of which are spoken in Arizona.  

As neighboring languages, the first three share linguistic traits, such as similar case systems. The latter two are also genetically unrelated, Scarpete Walters said, but akin to the Balkan Sprachbund, they “share the same space.” This means that they might have influenced each other through the phenomenon known as language contact. 

Scarpete Walters’ dissertation has several objectives. She said she will attempt to identifyuniversal human concepts in culture-specific configurations of 'heart'” across the various cultures and languages that are part of her inquiry.  

She will also explore pedagogical implications for the learning and teaching of metaphors and idioms in a foreign/second language. This draws on research showing that teaching metaphor in class may significantly improve learners’ metaphorical competence and their communication skills.  

“Culture exposure is crucial in learning and teaching figurative language in a foreign language. By focusing on a type of research known as needs analysis,’ my research will inform curriculum designers and materials developers what should be taught in terms of metaphors and idioms in the selected languages,” Scarpete Walters said. By using examples of "heart" metaphors from one of the languages, she will later demonstrate in a separate study how culture-specific metaphors should be taught. 

Her dissertation director, Professor of Slavic and applied linguistics Danko Sipka, said that what sets her project apart is its inclusion of multiple languages that span the globe. 

“Her research is unique as it is truly interdisciplinary, intercultural and multilingual,” Sipka said, congratulating her for receiving the support grant. “The highly competitive award, bestowed upon her by two prestigious national organizations, offers external validation for the soundness and originality of her research.” 

Scarpete Walters is a first-generation student in the Comparative Culture and Language doctoral program of the School of International Letters and Cultures. She has recently been advanced to candidacy. She is also a graduate teaching associate in linguistics. Prior to coming to ASU, she studied and taught in Bucharest, Romania. There, she completed a master’s thesis in Romanian and another in Modern Greek.  

This past semester, Scarpete Walters enrolled in the Humanities Lab called “Language Emergency,” a collaboration with Indigenous peoples of Arizona aimed at protecting their languages and cultures. Her team created surveys to investigate the expectations and needs of dictionary users to determine the most appropriate content and design features.  

This ties in with her dissertation research; Scarpete Walters plans to share the data she collects with the local Indigenous community to contribute to the expansion of their dictionary databases.

The O’odham and Piipaash Language Program of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community recently received funding to establish lexicography databases for the O’odham and Piipaash languages. Scarpete Walters noted that the Piipaash language, in particular, is among the most endangered Indigenous languages in the U.S. 

To further support her dissertation research, Scarpete Walters will enroll in the Critical Languages Institute of the Melikian Center this summer to study first-year Albanian. The seven-week program allows students with no previous knowledge of Albanian to reach a novice high or intermediate low level of language competency.  

“As a PhD student specializing in cultural linguistics, Gina knows that learning Albanian will enrich her research,” said Irina Levin, the director of the Critical Languages Institute (CLI) and associate director of the Melikian Center. “At CLI, we are proud to offer less commonly taught languages like Albanian to students like Gina from ASU and across the country.” 

Scarpete Walters received a scholarship from the Melikian Center Awards Program to fund her Albanian studies. These scholarships are supported by the Melikian Center’s endowment as well as private donors. Levin noted that last year, 60% of Critical Languages Institute students received need-based or merit-based funding. 

Kimberly Koerth

Content Writer, School of International Letters and Cultures