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Math: why it all adds up

October 18, 2010

What’s the best job in the world in 2010? To those who remember trying to get through high-school algebra, the answer to this question is probably unbelievable.

According to a survey by, the best job is that of a mathematician. The survey ranked 200 jobs, from best to worst, according to stress, physical demands, hiring outlook, compensation and work environment.

That news is music to the ears of Wayne M. Raskind, director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which is celebrating its first anniversary as a school this month.

Though he acknowledges that “math isn’t for everyone,” Raskind said that a degree in mathematics can lead the way to many career paths.

“For example, a major in mathematics is very attractive to admissions committees of professional schools such as law, business and medicine. This is because people who have studied mathematics know how to, among many other things, construct logical arguments, spot fallacies in widely accepted arguments, make useful models of real-world situations, learn new things quickly and find a common structure in seemingly disparate phenomena.”

Raskind, who studies number theory, algebraic geometry and cryptography, and earned his doctoral degree at Cambridge University, said the common myth that math majors “have to teach” is not true anymore.

“Math is used in fluid dynamics, mathematical biology, electrical engineering and control theory, and the exciting emerging new fields such as network and systems dynamics, high-performance scientific computing and meteorology, imaging, and data mining.”

Raskind came to ASU two years ago from the University of Southern California, where he was dean of faculty in the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and chair of the Mathematics Department, lured by the prospect of setting up a new school and interacting with thousands of students every year.

The prospect of leading a school, rather than a department, was a major factor in Raskind’s decision to come to ASU, he said. “The school model encourages us to reach out to other academic units rather than be silos.”

Just before his arrival at ASU, the doctoral program was revamped, eliminating its “one-size-fits-all” degree and inaugurating four new doctoral degrees – in mathematics, applied mathematics, statistics and mathematics education.

Raskind also has overseen a 35 percent growth in the number of students taking math courses in the last two years, and he expects the school to see an annual 8 to 10 percent increase for the next few years, at the least.

Managing the influx of students has been a challenge for the school, which now teaches almost 30,000 students per year in more than 500 course sections.

Additionally, the faculty have to balance teaching and research, Raskind said. “We have a wide range of research, including research with other units such as the Biodesign Institute, School of Life Sciences, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Fulton Schools of Engineering and the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Our goal is to interact with other units on a more fundamental level, with groups of people where there is a constant back and forth. That’s what the university is for.”

ASU is in an unusual position with regard to its math program, Raskind added. “Around the country there is a concern about the number of students studying the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math – but here, that number has grown quite a bit.

Part of the growth is because Arizona is “underserved when it comes to education,” he said, noting that there are just three state universities, the community colleges, and a few small private schools, to serve the entire state.

The School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences has a faculty of 100, and many of them are deeply involved in teaching students and preparing them for advanced degrees, and helping to spread the word about ASU’s outstanding math and statistics programs.

Fabio Milner, who is director of mathematics for STEM Education, works at the most basic level. He explained that the key to retaining students and ensuring success for them is to accurately place them in “the most advanced mathematics course they are prepared for.”

“Towards this goal we have created a new placement exam for calculus and pre-calculus that comes with online remediation modules that allow students who need it to improve their mathematics skills so they can be successful in more advanced mathematics,” he said. “The Math Placement Test became fully operational in the winter of 2009 and has just been expanded for placement into MAT 117, college algebra.”

“Many of the math majors now come from Barrett, the Honors College, including numerous National Merit Scholars,” said Matthias Kawski, associate director for undergraduate programs.

“Last year, some of our graduating math and statistics majors went on to Cambridge, Berkeley, Stanford, Minnesota, Columbia, USC, Texas, and other prestigious graduate programs,” Kawski added.

“Many of our undergraduate students are actively engaged in research projects. They present at undergraduate conferences like Southwestern Undergraduate Mathematics Research Conference and at major professional conferences like the Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Francisco.”

“Having the four distinct PhD programs has been a major help in recruiting high-caliber prospective students into the appropriate programs, as reflected in the quality and quantity of the applications received this spring,” said John Lopez, associate director for graduate programs.

Zdzislaw Jackiewicz, head of the Applied Mathematics doctorate program, said, “The School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences has many excellent researchers who are funded by the National Science Foundation, Air Force, National Institute of Health, and other federal agencies. They are well equipped to supervise research and interdisciplinary activities.

“This will give the students the best possible start into a research careers in applied mathematics. Our graduates will be well poised to work at research universities, government laboratories, hospitals and medical research centers, as well as local and national industries.”

Sharon Crook, associate professor of mathematics and life sciences, who recently received an $894,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, illustrates the interdisciplinary nature of today’s School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

“The proposed research focuses on developing an infrastructure for publishing, exchanging and reproducing complex computational models of neural systems,” Crook said. “With my collaborators, I will continue to develop a description language for models of neurons and neuronal networks called NeuroML (”

The international team of investigators for NeuroML includes Suzanne Dietrich from the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at ASU’s West campus, who brings expertise on XML databases to the project.

Now, you’re probably wondering what the lowest-ranked occupation was in the survey. With apologies to Paul Bunyan, it’s being a lumberjack.

So that’s the story. Any way you add it up, the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences has a bright future ahead.