## Friday, March 09, 2007

Hello, and welcome to the first installment of "Ask an Applied Mathematician," your source for all things mathematical and at least somewhat applied.

Today's question was posed by the mathematician herself, seeing as she hadn't actually solicited (or therefore received) any questions from her excellent readership. The question is: You claim to be a mathematician, yet I see in your sidebar that you have a "shiny new Ph.D. in Computer Science." So which is it? Are you a computer scientist or a mathematician?

Well, me, what an excellent question! The short answer is "both."

Yes, my degree is in Computer Science, and I took a lot of computer science courses in graduate school – courses in stuff like operating systems, programming languages and compilers, and parallel computing. But I also took quite a few classes that were mathematical in nature – linear algebra, optimization, partial differential equations. And, I took some courses that were a little of both – computer science theory (discrete math, as applied to algorithms), numerical analysis (linear algebra, optimization, partial differential equations, and much more, focusing on how they are solved on a computer), parallel numerical algorithms (computer algorithms to solve math problems in a multiprocessor environment). Then I also took some courses in which numerical methods were applied to problems in engineering – finite elements (a mathematical method used by mechanical engineers to design the space station, for example), and groundwater modeling.

I consider myself a computational scientist. I am a generalist spanning three main fields: computer science, mathematics, and physics. I don't know any of these fields in great depth. My eyes glaze over when people begin to discuss the subtle nuances of the C++ language, or the latest hardware developments. I am totally lost when it comes to real analysis or number theory. And I don't even pretend to understand general relativity or string theory. But, if you're wanting to design a more efficient algorithm, or parallelize your existing algorithm, or optimize a function, then I am your woman. If you need to solve a physics problem (where by physics I mean a problem that can be boiled down to a physical process that can be modeled mathematically), talk to me about it.

I work every day with people who have degrees in mathematics, aerospace engineering, physics, and chemistry. We are all in the math department (with the exception of the chemist). So I guess we all count as mathematicians, even if at first glance it seems like we're not.

Got a question for the Applied Mathematician? Leave it in the comments or send it over e-mail!

Jane said...

I've always wondered about what sort of work you are doing. Thanks for the post---it was very interesting to hear about your work! Particularly since you are doing what I tell my students computer scientists do: solve problems in all kinds of areas (so that being well-rounded is a plus). Looking forward to more posts in this series.

rachie said...

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on math and music sometime. Supposedly people with talent in one area often have it in the other -- you certainly had both in spades -- but that's not always the case, I don't think. But how have the two intersected in your life?

Marius said...