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Applications Involvement Component equals more success for Ph.D. students in math at NIU

August 20, 2012
Linda Sons

Linda Sons

Most Ph.D. students in math never think about working for a major corporation or federal agency as part of their program. Doctoral students normally worry about qualifying exams, writing their dissertations and obtaining careers in academia.

At NIU, however, students are involved in a unique plan of studies.

The Applications Involvement Component (AIC) of the math Ph.D., created in the early 1990s under the direction of Linda Sons, has now become “a model for institutions across the US.”

So says professor Avner Friedman, a recognized authority in the world of applied mathematics, founding director of the Mathematical Biosciences Institute, member of the National Academy of Sciences, past president of the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) and past president of the Society of Mathematical Biology.

NIU alums agree.

Matt Cardwell, a 2009 Ph.D. graduate and current director for academic relations at Intelligent Medical Objects (IMO), applauds the program.

“Previous to joining the IMO team in a full-time capacity, I interned for IMO for two summers. I believe that more than anything else, the time during my AIC internship secured my future employment with IMO. During that time, I proved both my problem-solving acumen as well as technical skills,” Cardwell says.

“The AIC seminar exposes the student to a wide range of mathematical activity and career opportunities,” current director Hamid Bellout says. “In contrast to most career-education efforts, this exposure is not tacked onto the end of the student’s graduate education, but forms an integral part of it from the beginning.”

Matt Cardwell (left) and Frank Naeymi-Rad, CEO and chairman of the board at IMO.

Matt Cardwell (left) and Frank Naeymi-Rad, CEO and chairman of the board at IMO.

Students attend weekly seminars to learn more about careers in math. Guest speakers and researchers come from companies such as Caterpillar, Argonne, Toshiba Medical Research Institute, Baxter International, Fermi Lab, Navistar, Motorola, Abbott Labs, Hamilton Sundstrand and even the Federal Reserve.

After students complete required internships, they give presentations about their experiences to the other graduate students in the program.

“Most of our graduates will go on to either work in industry or teach in a four-year college,” Bellout says. “We find that the AIC experience gives them a singular advantage in each instance, both in making them more attractive to prospective employers and in preparing them for the nature of their work.”

Northbrook, Ill.-based IMO is a relatively new company to the AIC program.

“From my previous experience with the company, I connected the CEO, Frank Naeymi-Rad, with Professor Bellout as a possible Friday seminar speaker,” Cardwell says.

That connection opened up another internship at the company, and the former student became internship supervisor. Two more NIU mathematics Ph.D. students recently began internships at IMO.

“IMO is first and foremost a content provider, furnishing diagnosis and procedure interface terminologies for use within health care applications. The largest component of my work involves product-oriented roles, packaging and implementing content that our knowledge team has created,” Cardwell says.

“In addition, I’ve assumed a role as director of Academic Relations. This aspect of my work is indeed exciting for me,” he adds. “After finishing graduate school, the greatest absence I’ve felt is not teaching on a day-to-day basis. Supervising interns lets me feel like I’m in the classroom again.”

These things together – the broad, secondhand experience gained through the AIC seminar, and the deeper, firsthand experience of the internship – develop a degree of professional self-assurance that encourages students to recognize and pursue opportunity.

“It’s an intellectual maturity that the narrow life of a graduate student generally cannot produce,” Bellout says.

Christine Leroux

Christine Leroux

Even for those electing to go on to a career in academia, the AIC experience is still very valuable.

Ph.D. student Christine Leroux recently accepted a tenure-track position at SUNY Orange (Orange County Community College).

Leroux worked at Ecore Systems on a project looking for relationships between words for a resume matching system, similar to but better tailored for both the prospective employer and employee.

“When I interviewed for the job, the first thing the associate dean asked was about my AIC experience. It gave us a common language on which to connect,” Leroux says.

The AIC experience also helped her demonstrate how she, as a mathematician, can relate to students who typically are not mathematicians.

by Linda Watson