Fairfield Now - Spring 2007
Math Master's: Value that adds up
By Barbara D. Kiernan, M.A.'90
Dr. Ben Fine, professor of mathematics, has a problem he's still trying to solve. It began seven or eight years ago when he and longtime colleague Robert Bolger, now retired, founded the master of science in mathematics degree program in the College of Arts & Sciences. "We expected to draw the usual suspects - teachers, business people, and lost souls," he says with a laugh, "but I never expected that we'd also be enrolling career changers, financiers, and math lovers, too."
A program that the University initially hoped would serve 20 students a year is bursting its seams at 35 - a very good problem to have.
"I had wondered if we could attract decent students to a deliberately small program," Dr. Fine says. "As it's turned out, their abilities are even better than I had hoped."
Dr. Ben Fine (left) relishes the variety of students enrolled in the M.S. in mathematics program. With their professions become ever more quantitative, executives Kwamie Dunbar (center) and A.J. Edwards opted to learn the math that drives today's business models.
Kwamie Dunbar, for example, holds a Ph.D. in economics and is director of credit research at MasterCard International. He oversees the monitoring of nearly 2,500 member banks around the world that issue credit to consumers, to ensure that individual banks have enough assets on hand to pay the merchants. "I'm an economist," Dunbar says, "and my day-to-day job involves a lot of research and forecasting. But the field is becoming far more quantitative, and I needed to learn the math that makes more realistic models possible."
A.J. Edwards, who manages Northeast Utilities' $2.5 billion pension plan, had a similar motivation. He has an MBA in finance and holds the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation, but the world of investments has taken a similar swing. "I needed to enrich my math background so I could improve my quantitative skills," says Edwards. "I knew the financial side - the theory - but I wanted to follow the reasoning that the Ph.D. and hard science practitioners were using when developing quantitative models. Now I can."
Sebastian Mineo (left) has found a fine mentor in Dr. Christopher Bernhardt
"For adults, desire trumps any deficits in experience," observes Dr. Fine, "and they do quite well."
Witness Rosemary (Milewski '79) Danaher. The inkling of a midlife career change drew her to the program - that, and the fact that she had had such a positive experience as an undergraduate. "Back then, I knew and was known by the faculty," she recalls. The memory of those close relationships was a factor in her making the call to Dr. Fine. She came for an interview and committed to the program before she left his office. That was in 2004, during her 25th year with GE.
"The first class ("Real Analysis") was incredibly difficult for me because I had had no formal math courses since completing my MBA in the early '80s," Danaher admits. "My kids couldn't figure out why there were papers with partial math proofs scattered all over the house. By the end of the course, however, I had recalled so much. I knew then that I was up for the challenge."
For Lili Elzanaty, M.S.'06, a desire to keep her brain fine-tuned prompted her entry to the program. Equipped with a bachelor's degree in computer engineering that she earned in her native Lithuania and a master's degree in computer science from the University of Bridgeport, Elzanaty had left the workforce to raise her preschoolers. "When you have small children," she laughs, "you need to get out of the house, to do something for yourself." She decided that doing mathematics for the love of it would be her gift to herself. That was in 2003 and her children were 5, 4, and 2. "I wanted to keep my mind active and sharp," she says, "and the master's in mathematics program was a way to do that."
|What students in the M.S. program share is a love for mathematics, as Paige Schneider and Glenn Balamaci can attest.|
What Elzanaty and Danaher have enjoyed, in addition to a topic they love, is the variety of students in their classes. "We range in age from 22 to the late 50s, and no matter what field we're in, we all have math as a common interest," says Danaher. For most students, love of mathematics is just part of the motivation. The changing nature of their professions is another.
Last spring, for example, a convergence of job-related needs led Dunbar and Edwards to approach Dr. Fine with an unusual request. "We pressed him to create a summer course in ‘Stochastic Processes,'" says Edwards, explaining that it's a big body of knowledge not offered in the curriculum. "Others voiced interest as well, and since the subject matter borders heavily on Dr. Fine's expertise in probability and statistics, we thought it would be a good fit."
Dr. Fine rose to the challenge. "We so appreciate the way he listened and pulled that course together for the five of us," says Dunbar. As a result, Dunbar and Edwards have co-authored an academic paper (on credit default swap pricing) inspired, in part, by the light bulb that went off in the course. It is slated for publication the Journal of Quantitative Finance.
Publishing was not something 26-year-old Sebastian Mineo had in mind when he left his job as an environmental consultant to do something more "intellectually exciting and challenging." A year into Fairfield's program, he became interested in chaos and dynamical systems, an area of mathematics about which he knew little but wanted to learn more. "Dr. Fine led me to (professor) Dr. Christopher Bernhardt, who agreed to work with me on an independent study in one-dimensional dynamics last summer," says Mineo. "I had never done anything like this before."
Toward the end of the summer, Dr. Bernhardt became curious about a question Mineo's project had raised, and invited Mineo to do the work with him on it. "In mathematics," explains Dr. Bernhardt, "you get a feeling something is true, and then work to find a logical argument to show that it is so." The discovery process, however, does not involve supercomputers. "It's mainly sitting and thinking. Seb and I would e-mail possible proofs back and forth, ask questions, think some more, and keep progressing toward the proof."
What they accomplished - which they are happy to share with readers who ask - has been presented by Mineo at Fairfield and at a meeting of the Mathematics Association of America. Mineo and Dr. Bernhardt have submitted the paper for publication in one of the Association's journals.
Dr. Bernhardt, who does not typically teach in the master's program relishes the role of mentor. "I enjoy Seb's enthusiasm and find it mutually reinforcing," he says. "But more than enthusiasm, you need ability, and Seb has both."
|While home with three pre-schoolers, Lily Elzanaty, M.S.'06, decided that pursuing a master's would keep her mind sharp. Dr. Fine found her presence in and contributions to class real assets.|
Her youngest child now enrolled in kindergarten, Elzanaty has returned to work outside the home. "Having the additional degree added to my credibility when I began looking for a job," she says, "especially because I had been out of the workforce for several years." Today she is employed at an investment management company in Stamford, where she tracks daily downloads of data and ensures its integrity.
Danaher, who opted to leave a 26-year career in IT with GE, has landed at nearby Sacred Heart University, having accepted a fulltime mathematics position in 2005. She's currently taking the last two courses for her master's degree - online, in biostatistics - and will add the coveted M.S. credential in May. She's also considering pursuing a Ph.D. in biostatistics or statistics. Her sentiment: "Why not?"
Mineo just can't say enough about his experience. "Dr. Bernhardt is awesome. He was positive and encouraging throughout the process, was quick to answer any questions I had, yet patient with any misconceptions or gaps in my knowledge," he says. "I've learned that research in mathematics can be challenging, humbling, and rewarding. It's definitely something I would like to do more of in the future."
Mineo is currently filling out applications for doctoral studies - yet another path the master's in mathematics makes possible.
Editor's note: A new option in advanced mathematics is now available to professionals with backgrounds in finance who want to understand the math that undergirds their field: a 12-credit certificate in financial mathematics. Its courses can count toward an eventual master's degree in mathematics if the student opts to continue.