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Industry experts emphasize importance of both math and communication skills


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November 22, 2013

More than 50 students attended the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences annual Career Day on Nov. 12, which highlighted student research and included an "Ask the Pros" Q&A session with professionals from local industries providing career advice and interviewing tips to students. 

This Career Day is one of the reasons ASU’s School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences is ranked seventh in the nation based on the earnings of graduates, according to the 2013 “Best Schools for Math Majors” report released by Payscale.com.

At the Career Day, students learned that having top-notch mathematical skills is critical, but so is the ability to communicate to non-math people. 

Colleen Burgess, managing partner for MathEcology, is an expert in the application of modeling and simulation to biological systems. Burgess remembered her time as a student as ASU: “In terms of classes, I think I got the most out of differential equations, and dimensional analysis has been really helpful. I wished I had worked a little harder in my numerical analysis classes, considering that is a lot of what I do now. I think, probably, I got a lot out of taking a wide range of classes, like literature and music, and I think that really helped me learn how to communicate with people who weren’t mathematicians, which is a really big deal. When you’re hired by people who aren’t mathematicians and they have a problem that you need to solve, you can’t talk math to them because they don’t understand you.”

Kewei Chen is a senior scientist, senior bio-mathematician and director of the Computational Analysis Lab at the Banner Alzheimer's Institute. His Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative is one of three highlighted projects the U.S. government announced as part of its National Alzheimer Plan early this year. Chen emphasized the importance of the math he took not during his doctoral or master's classes, but from undergraduate math courses.

“The thing I learned most that is still very valuable currently is mathematical reasoning," says Chen. "Those ‘pure’ math courses, basic mathematics, like limits ... make you mathematically solid. The mathematical analysis, algebra and topology courses – all those kinds of things were very abstract and you may think those things are not necessarily helpful or that they may not have any applications in the real world, but those algebra courses are invaluable. 

“I probably got into the math too much and would like the ability to talk to people. That is probably how people outside of mathematics feel. How can we communicate more productively – you learn their language and they learn your language.”

ASU alumnus Amylou Dueck joined Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. as a lead statistician in 2005, after receiving a doctoral degree in statistics from ASU. She later transferred to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., where she is the current head of the Section of Biostatistics. Dueck's primary role at Mayo Clinic is designing and analyzing clinical trials in cancer.

“Every single person up here has stressed communication, communication, communication," Dueck said. "That’s such a deadly combination: if you know your stuff and you can communicate it. There are so many people in our field who do not communicate well, and they just struggle. They can’t actually go out and do something in the real world unless they can communicate it. I always say, the fanciest models on the planet are not going to get anywhere if you can’t explain them to anyone.”

Audrey Halvorson, vice president of actuarial services and health care economics for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, had a similar message for students.

“One thing I learned more about in my high school was writing," Halvorson said. "I’m looking for people who can write. You’ve got to be able to document and you’ve got to be able to write. It’s really, really important to be able to have the numerical analysis and be able to interpret data, and the interpretation piece is often what I see missing from mathematically-oriented people. They can do the job, but can they translate it into what it means for the business? So that interpretation is something I had to learn on the job. I wish there was some kind of way to learn it while in school.”

Besides communication, another recurring theme of the discussion was data – and the future of big data. Brad Coen, vice president and technology manager of enterprise data management for Wells Fargo, stressed the importance of data mining. 

“When you think about the world today – like gasoline, we’re running out of that as a resource – gold, copper, trees; all these things, there’s only one natural resource right now that’s growing, and that’s data," Coen said. "It’s growing rapidly. Kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes, terabytes ... wherever you want to go, it’s growing, and it’s so big that we don’t know what to do with it yet.”

“In the next ten or fifteen years, that’s going to be where a lot of world problems are solved – seriously. In mining this data, figuring out what to do with it, with unstructured data. But data is the answer. The hot thing is to be a data scientist. If I were in college, I would become a data scientist.”

Dueck added that the real world is nothing like a textbook. “When you’re given a data set, you don’t know what the right answer’s going to be – you don’t even know if that’s the right data, and you have to ask lots of questions and look at it from a lot of different ways to really figure it out. So it really goes back to anytime you can get your hands on some real data, it’s a good experience.”

The panelists also talked to students about the advantage of internships. Halvorson emphasized, “If you can get an internship, it’s huge. Getting a feel for what it’s like to be in the real workforce – that’s huge. I want you to interview me. Research me on the web. Ask me about our mission statement. Then I will be asking you questions such as, did you have a project in school where you had problems to solve? How did you do that? What was easy, what was hard about it?”

“The year I spent in the statistics help desk got me my internship, which ultimately got me my real job," Dueck said. "They even said during my internship that is what they picked out on my resume: the time I spent at the help desk. They knew that I could actually work on problems, communicate with people and I actually had some experience beyond just the coursework. So anything you can do to get some real-world experience while you’re a student is really good for your resume."

When asked what they look for during an interview, the panelists offered some sage advice. Burgess emphasized communication skills again, “and also flexibility – be willing to try something new. Know how to work under a deadline. There are deadlines, and they’re hard. If you’re late, then you’re in deep trouble – and you can be audited by the federal government for a contract that you’ve not completed – so it’s a big deal. And be responsive. Nothing ticks me off more than sending out an email and not getting a response.”

Ning Wang, research scientist for SAP Data Science Organization, received her doctorate at ASU in May 2013 and offered a fresh perspective: “I just got out of college, so every day is new for me. Every day I have to study for a new industry, like banking, or insurance, or retail, because they are all customers and I have to learn all of them. My PhD education taught me that I could learn new things fast – so it’s okay, I can learn things.

“Before you send out your resume, make sure the position has what you need. You need to focus on the right position to match your background," Wang said. "What is the skill set that is required? In interviews, I was not asked hard questions. They said, 'Can you explain your dissertation?’ They just wanted to see how you are going to explain a fancy topic. Not everyone can explain it to those who are not experts. When preparing for interviews, go back to the project you’ve been working on and practice using your communication skills to explain it well.”

Coen told the students he was interested to learn “the way you think, the way you problem solve – those are the raw skills we are looking for.” And he recommended following basic interviewing tips, including “making eye contact the whole time. And don’t text anybody (laughter).”

The Career Day "Ask the Pros" event is geared for both undergraduate and graduate students, “and is a wonderful opportunity for students to learn from folks out in industry about how mathematics and statistics is used in their professions,” said Al Boggess, director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

“The discussion also gave both students and faculty an insight as to what skills are important for today’s job seekers," Boggess said. "In particular, industry likes the logical problem-solving skills acquired by students in our curricula. On the other hand, the panel drove home the point that good communication skills – both oral and written – are just as important as good technical skills. Our school is quite lucky to be able to attract such high caliber panelists from the local area who are willing to give advice to the next generation of job seekers.”