Sept. 26, 2023
Mathematicians to the rescue
Consider these problems: How do we investigate the possibility of using slash piles from logging to make jet fuel? How do we change the pricing of electrical energy throughout the day to encourage people to use more energy during off-peak hours? How do we know how many salmon to count to effectively manage regional pacific salmon populations?
Sound difficult? These are just three of the practical problems taken on by math students through the Math to Power Industry (M2PI) workshop this year, a program where graduate and postdoctoral students team up with business, government and non-profit partners to solve complex problems needed for business expansion.
The M2PI workshop has been hosted annually by the Pacific Institutes of Mathematical Sciences (PIMS) since 2020. Students from across British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Washington can take part in the hybrid program. The goal is to give mathematics students a chance to transfer their skills into non-academic settings.
“There is no non-academic career path that is simply called mathematician,” says Dr. Kristine Bauer, PhD, an associate professor of mathematics and the director and co-founder of M2PI.
Bauer explains that before the M2PI workshop, a PhD graduate might spend two years trying to turn themselves into a data scientist, software engineer or machine learning specialist to find a meaningful job in industry.
That’s exactly what she wants to change.
During the first week of the program, students take training in areas like communications, so they can collaborate with their teams and explain their ideas in non-technical jargon, and coding in the Python programming language so they can deliver their solutions effectively. Then, it’s time to meet with the industry mentors and start solving the problems.
“The students have seen the problems in writing, but usually there’s this moment when the industry mentors tell them why this problem is so important to them. It really reframes the problem in a different way,” said Bauer.
A gap to fill
According to a University Affairs article featuring Elizabeth Cannon, president emerita of the University of Calgary, the number of people graduating with PhDs in this country has been increasing steadily since 2002. Yet, the number of tenure-stream professor positions has remained relatively constant.
“Canada is producing more and more PhDs every year, and we’re not growing academic jobs at the same rate,” says Bauer. “At the same time, we don’t necessarily see industry clamouring for PhD candidates at a greater rate than they did before.”
In other words: there is a gap, and the M2PI workshop’s mission is to fill it.
“What this workshop is trying to do is take people with a very particular PhD-level skill set and try to help them to find those industry jobs faster. And they do it by working on a hands-on project so by the end of the day they’re able to put up a resume item saying yes, my skills are transferable and here’s the proof,” says Bauer.
Electricity use in a greener future
In 2023, the M2PI workshop had a green theme. That meant every problem was related to clean energy or technology, climate change or other realms of climate resilience.
Mishty Ray, a PhD candidate in mathematics, has taken part in the M2PI workshop twice. In 2023, she worked with a company called Awesense. Their problem involved developing a pricing model for energy consumption to help encourage users to shift their energy usage to off-peak hours.
“As we move away from burning fossil fuels and towards cleaner forms of energy, people's electricity consumption behaviour will change,” explains Ray. “Consider electric cars. If people plug in their electric or hybrid vehicles after coming back from work, there will be a huge demand for electricity in the evening. It’s not easy to satisfy spikes in demand, so we would like to incentivize people to do this later during off-peak hours.”
Ray’s team studied Awesense’s intelligently simulated data and came up with a model that helped visualize reduced sharp peaks by designing tariffs.
“The Awesense team gave us a strong foundation and amazing resources. With sound technical backing, our team was quickly able to adjust to the new problem and make it our own. We had good synergy. I am really satisfied with how this problem went,” says Ray.
A win for everyone
With approximately 50 per cent of workshop graduates ending up in industry jobs, it’s clear to see the benefit of the M2PI workshop for students.
“It’s a great demonstration of how math PhDs are good at picking up and learning complex things and thinking critically about them. The organizers have managed to create a truly symbiotic experience for participants and partners within a brief time frame. For me, this is unprecedented,” says Ray.
Perhaps not quite as obvious is the real benefit to both industry and academic mentors. Industry partners, as well as getting their problems solved, have the opportunity to scout a talent pool that’s otherwise difficult to access. According to Bauer, it costs around $10,000 for a company to go through the process of finding and hiring a job candidate.
“Each one of these industry partners gets access to the 30 to 50 students that we have in the program, with an opportunity to be able to call them up afterwards, and say 'Hey, we have this position that we think you might be interested in,' all without spending any money.”
Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN) has been involved in the workshop for two years. Devin Goodsman, a research scientist in forest ecology and entomology at NRCAN, said her experience with the workshop has been “fantastic.”
“I think that it’s such a great platform for initiating and demonstrating collaboration between mathematicians and industry or government partners,” says Goodsman.
Angela Addison, a fisheries program director for the North Coast Skeena First Nations Stewardship Society, speaks highly of the students she worked with during the workshop this year.
“The students were patient and willing to ask questions and explain their assumptions, respectfully, in lay terms for the non-mathematicians who were contributing to the work,” says Addison.
As for the academic mentors, they have access to fascinating problems that originate outside the university.
“Applied mathematicians don’t just sit in a closet trying to figure out what would make a good research project. We’re giving them greater exposure to the needs of society in order to direct their research,” says Bauer. “There’s a real element of win-win-win to the entire workshop.”