|Mathematics stepping out of the shadows
By Nicole Strandlund - Business Edge
It's not all Greek.
Well, some of it is - but that doesn't mean it has to be incomprehensible. Mathematics, with a language of its own and chalkboard-long equations of foreign symbols, has long been cloaked in a Dumbledorian mystique.
But some say businesses may be passing up great opportunities if employers shut their eyes and pretend they don't need to know anything about this discipline.
"It's actually hard to name an industry sector that wouldn't find a mathematician useful," says Arvind Gupta, CEO and scientific director of MITACS (mathematics of information technology and complex systems), a national network of centres of excellence that works to commercialize and apply math techniques in industry and government.
|Photo courtesy of
Gupta's MITACS intern program has placed graduate
students with companies.|
MITACS sponsors a program to place math
graduate students into internship positions in businesses
across the country.
"It's hard to imagine where a math student
wouldn't be useful, just because so much technology is
mathematically driven," says Gupta. "A fair number of interns
have gone to high-tech companies, whether it's on the
pharmaceutical side or the information technology side. But
we've actually been very successful placing students in
companies that might be considered more primary
The internship program is now in its second
year. In 2005, MITACS helped place 100 math interns in banks,
financial houses, hospitals, technology firms and companies in
the resource sector. In 2006, close to 200 students will be
given internship positions.
During the program, students remain students
at their respective universities. They typically spend half
their time with the company and the other half at the
university, which is why companies only pay half the cost of
Aaron Pratt, a University of Calgary student
working on a masters in applied mathematics, was an intern at
the Calgary office of energy and home-services retailer Direct
Energy during the summer of 2005.
The company was interested in examining
relationships between natural gas and electricity markets - a
project that Direct's on-staff mathematicians were too busy to
undertake on their own.
Pratt says he ended up building a
co-variance structure of all of Direct's markets (to describe
the relationships among commodities), and also studied market
A degree in mathematics was necessary to do
this job, says Pratt. Although the entire project was not all
high level, "there was some relatively intense math in it," he
Jeff Michnowski, chief risk officer at
Direct Energy, says Pratt's work is invaluable. The
mathematical model Pratt developed helps the company evaluate
the value and risk of its entire portfolio of commodity
positions, he adds.
"We've implemented part of what he's helped
us with," he says. "It (the model) is very, very beneficial to
The internship program itself, notes
Michnowski, was "absolutely" a positive experience. "The
company really benefited. I think Aaron himself learned a lot
about the business. And the third benefit was bringing that
knowledge back to the university ...
It helps us solve business problems,
provides experience to the individual and kind of gives us the
'in' at the university. We're always looking for smart people
to come in for either intern jobs or possibly full-time
Steven Pelech, director and chief scientific
officer at B.C.-based biotech firm Kinexus Bioinformatics
Corp., has also received a math intern through the MITACS
program. Sharon Zhao started at the firm in December 2005 and
will continue until the end of July. Pelech says the intern
experience has been worthwhile, and he intends to take on
The company's research is based on better
defining protein kinases, essentially the on/off switches for
the body's proteins that control all chemical reactions in the
Malfunctions of these switches are at the
root of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and more, says Pelech.
"The work is really important ... (it's) at the crux of the
whole concept of personalized medicine.
"The pharmaceutical industry itself really
requires this knowledge about protein kinases and what they
target. And the information that we're working on, with
Sharon's help, is helping to define those molecular targets
that can be used both for diagnosis and for treatments."
Pratt, who is still working with Direct
Energy even though the initial internship is over, says the
language and mystique of math are definitely barriers for
"I think the reason it's like that is the
lack of communication," he says. "People that don't understand
it (math) well, kind of view it that way. And the people that
do understand it don't bother explaining it very well. So they
just allow people to have that view of it."
"As academics, we probably haven't done as
good a job of demystifying math," agrees MITACS' Gupta.
"What's happened is that we've left that space to either the
popular media or popular misconceptions about math. And it's
not just about it being hard. There are lots of subjects which
students will perceive as hard: Medicine is hard, or
engineering is hard. But they don't have trouble attracting a
lot of good students into (those disciplines)."
The bigger, more fundamental issue, says
Gupta, is that many people believe math won't get them
anywhere. "What's funny is that in school, we all learn, 'You
should learn lots of math because it's very useful to you,' "
he says. "But somewhere along the line that message gets lost"
and no one gives concrete examples of where math can be used,
so students don't believe the message.
|Photo courtesy of
Kinexus Bioinformatics Corp.|
Pelech, in his Kinexus Bioinformatics Corp. office with
Keiko, plans to continue to hire MITACS
"I talk to lots of people who say, 'I have a
math degree and it's actually been useful, although I wouldn't
have guessed it.' Or, 'I'm not directly using it, but it's
good training for lots of other jobs,' " Gupta adds. "As
mathematicians, if for nothing else than the survival of our
discipline, we need to do a better job of communicating
Gupta says groups such as MITACS and
programs such as the one for interns are crucial for students,
business, and most importantly, for Canada.
"A lot of kids leave Canada for the job
opportunities" and most of the time it's not about money, but
more about finding interesting work, he adds. "If we don't
create interesting opportunities here (in Canada), they'll
After the first two years of the internship
program, however, things are looking up. Every single one of
the Canadian students who did an internship has stayed in
Canada at the completion of their degree. The retention rate
has been 73 per cent for foreign students.
"Those are huge changes from what we had
before," says Gupta. "It's at least an order of magnitude
difference - probably double the number of foreign students,
and not quite double the number of domestic students."
After the internship, about half the interns
went on to do a PhD, "which is probably the expected number
... but they've gone on to do PhDs in Canada and a lot of them
are doing PhDs in very applied areas."
The other half have gone and worked for the
company where they did their internship.
Adds Gupta: "These internship programs are
creating, I think, interesting job opportunities in Canada,
and that's really going to bode well for us."
Nicole Strandlund can be reached at nicole@NO_SPAM_businessedge.ca
Source: Business Edge