Katrina Gensterblum: Math and research - It all adds up

  • Students

Katrina Gensterblum, from Pinckney, Mich., is a junior majoring in mathematics. She is a College of Natural Science Deans Research Scholar.

“Can you get a job with just a math degree?”

“Don’t you need a Ph.D. to do real research?”

“Why do you want to major in math?”

“What are you going to do with THAT?”

These are just a few of the common questions every math major hears. Time and time again, I’ve had to explain why a math degree is not only useful, but also powerful, especially within research.

During my first two years here at Michigan State, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a variety of research experiences. My freshman year, I started out working alongside an amazing professor on a math theory project, involving uniformly continuous metric spaces. And while that subject was as foreign to me as it probably is to you, the research experience culminated with me being able to co-author on a paper on the subject.

At the same time, I was also able to work with two other great professors, this time within a mathematical discipline nearly opposite to pure theory: decentralized optimization. This was also a foreign subject to me, but the professors were patient and helped teach me what I didn’t know. I ended up learning a great deal, and eventually was able to run simulations for them, as well as help develop a new algorithm. I even got to present this work at a local research symposium, an equally nerve-racking and exciting experience.

Currently, I’ve taken my math major in another direction, and I am working with a lab in the neuroscience department. Here we are using mathematics to quantitatively explain brain activity and behavior in mice and humans, with the ultimate goal of studying and helping autism patients.

In order to discover patterns in behavior though, we must first track the movements of a human or mouse. This is where I come in. Over the past few months, I’ve been implementing a machine learning algorithm over our video data. This basically uses mathematical concepts to train a computer to track different body parts automatically. Pretty cool for just math! So cool in fact, that I was given the opportunity to present this work in Denver, Colo., at a conference this past summer, where I also won an outstanding presentation award!

My research experiences so far provide just a few examples that begin to satisfy and answer the questions and comments I hear related to my major. In just two years, I’ve been able to experience a wide range of applications for a math degree, even just an undergraduate one, and there are many more out there.

I am also on the executive board for the MSU Data Science Club. Through the club, we bring in many speakers in to talk about their careers in industry. Much of the time, a strong mathematical background is required for the type of work they do. The question isn’t what can you do with a math degree, but rather what WILL you do with a math degree?