Math grad students impact Rockford aerospace

Internships expose career opportunities beyond ‘ivory tower’

Erik Rodgers

Erik Rodgers

Erik Rodgers, a graduate student from the math department at NIU, somewhat reluctantly admits that math is often a solitary discipline.

For those who’ve seen “Good Will Hunting” too, too many times, the math student – especially the math graduate student – who comes to mind is a lean, pale lad or lass hunkered down in a basement office with white boards or old-school chalk boards on every wall, filled with equations from top to bottom and piles and piles of paper, muttering to him/herself about proofs and something about worm holes.

In the math department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, however, the math graduate students have incredible opportunities to get out of their basement offices and go out into the world in some surprising ways.

Shepherding the math department’s internship program into maturity, Hamid Bellout, professor in the department of mathematical sciences here at NIU, has pursued opportunities for his graduate students where they could apply their mathematics education to real world situations. As part of their education, graduate students in the math department are required to undertake an internship in the “real world.”

“The main purpose is to broaden their education,” Bellout said.

So far, his students have been successful interning at Caterpillar, Abbott, CNA, Baxter International, and as of late, the aerospace industry in Rockford. UTC Aerospace Systems, formerly known as Sundstrand, and Woodward hosted two such interns this summer.

An almost-finished Ph.D. candidate in math, Ben Wallis transferred to NIU to finish his undergraduate work from Rock Valley College. He finished his bachelor’s in 2010 and then seamlessly started his graduate work here. “At the time of my application process, I saw no reason to move around,” he said, “and everything I needed was here at NIU.”

Ben Wallis

Ben Wallis

Wallis completed his internship this past summer at Woodward in Rockford, a company involved in technologies related to the aerospace and energy markets.

“It was (my manager) Mike Hahn who taught me almost all the Matlab/Simulink/engineering techniques I learned at Woodward. Every day, it seemed to me, I found him enthusiastically engaging in his work,” Wallis said.

“It was a huge learning experience for me. My career is going to take place almost entirely in the ivory tower, and so it was quite a shock to see how a large commercial firm like Woodward operates,” he added. “It was especially nice to discover the Woodward culture, so to speak. More than that, I have developed a special appreciation for them, Woodward especially.”

It is rare that an internship is paid; however, most of the math internships are paid and some very well.

Another Rockford aerospace company, UTC, offers a paid summer internship which fits beautifully into the curriculum.

Because Bellout is a consultant for some of the companies in Rockford, he can be there to lend a helping hand to the student intern which was both convenient and valuable when Rodgers was solving a problem during his internship this past summer.

A master’s student originally from Rockford, Rodgers spent mid-May to mid-August working as an intern for UTAS on a computer model of an electric motor that wasn’t performing as quickly as they needed. He discovered that an algebraic loop was causing an artificial delay. If Erik had confined his studies to computer science like he’d planned, he said he doesn’t think he would have figured this problem out.

Logos of UTC Aerospace Systems and WoodwardThis distinctive part of the math graduate program is particular to NIU, and while many students come to the NIU math program thinking they’ll have careers strictly in academia, the internship program shows them that many careers are available for math students.

While Bellout works to expand the Rockford presence in many more industries, he says that at times it’s been difficult convincing companies that what they really want is math students rather than engineering or computer science students. However, once companies see the energetic and bright students at work, the benefits become obvious.

The only downside to this dynamic program? Students sometimes are hired away from NIU with offers they can’t refuse.

by Jodie Butler

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