Asked to imagine a mathematician, many people working in science and technology-related industries are likely to envision a short, bushy-haired man in a lab coat scribbling esoteric symbols on a chalkboard. Even the more enlightened corporate administrators may not see the value of having one on staff. And even the enlightened few who see value in it probably don't know how to gain access to mathematical expertise. Even many mathematicians, say the people at Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems (MITACS), a federal, not-for-profit society based at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, don't realize how powerful their skills can be in a practical context, and they're trying to change that.
"Supporters from industry, government, and research have come together to create new research opportunities for graduate students and postdoc fellows in the workplace," says Arvind Gupta, Scientific Director of MITACS. "Essentially, we wanted to bring the power of mathematics into our companies and government, and we want to show mathematicians that there are roles for them, apart from universities." Thanks to the MITACS program, graduate students and postdocs in the mathematical sciences are getting a chance to apply their knowledge within the corporate world, and corporations are getting a taste of the practical value of applied mathematics. MITACS has secured funding to support 100 internships over the next two years--so far they have offered 40 internships--and even more internships are in the works.
Launched in 1999 with funding from the Canadian government, MITACS's mission is to bring together industry, government, and academia to work on research projects that require advanced mathematical tools to solve problems of strategic importance to Canada's companies and, consequently, to the Canadian economy. There is also benefit for the participating mathematicians, says Gupta: the program offers advanced-degreed mathematicians unique training experiences that can translate into job opportunities down the road. According to MITACS statistics, 82% of their program interns have already found employment after completing their studies.
MITACS has been able to pull together 305 academic scientists, 611 students, and 169 partner organizations that, collectively, are working on 27 projects at 48 Canadian universities. A project begins with MITACS helping an organization identify existing problems that might require--or benefit from--mathematical expertise. They then connect these organizations with mathematicians with the expertise to address these problems. "A lot of them can see that their competition around the world is using mathematics, but they don't really know how to go about getting access to those kinds of resources," adds Gupta. This is where MITACS fits in--building a network of mathematics producers and consumers.
The Intern Program
While MITACS has been managing industrial research projects since its beginning, the Research Internship Program, which serves M.Sc. students, Ph.D. students, and postdocs, began in 2003 as a way to spread applied mathematics to more organizations. Participants have included companies, hospitals, government labs and agencies and not-for-profit societies. The first phase of the internship program has already been deemed a success, placing 50 interns in companies across the western provinces, though MITACS intends to expand the program across Canada. Internships last about 4 months, with MITACS and the participating partner contributing equally to the internship's $15,000 cost; MITACS recommends that at least $10,000 go to the intern in the form of a stipend. Supplements to the standard amount are sometimes paid by the partner organizations.
Money already has been pledged to increase the number of interns from the current 40 to 100 by 2007. Gupta hopes eventually to place 500 interns annually.
Interns spend at least half their time at the participating organization's site, researching a problem jointly identified by the partner, MITACS, and supervising professors. The remaining time is spent on campus, advancing their research under the guidance of their academic supervisors. "Students are getting a kind of training that we can't give them at the university," says Gupta. "They're learning how to take apart a problem, distill it into its different pieces, and find the real issues."
Interns have studied problems in industries ranging from mining to medicine. One mathematician created computer models of the compositional changes in Alberta's tar-sand reservoirs; these models are used by oil companies to help guide their investment strategies. In the medical field, mathematicians have developed algorithms and computer models to investigate cardiac arrhythmias in patients, to sequence the human genome, and to understand the spread of pathogens like the bird-flu virus. In finance, mathematical interns have developed models to elucidate the pricing of commodities that can't be stored.
Former postdoc intern Peter Berg credits MITACS with opening his eyes to what working in industry is like. Now an Assistant Professor in Physics at University of Ontario in Oshawa, Berg landed an internship at Burnaby-based Ballard Power Systems, a developer and supplier of hydrogen fuel-cell technology. Before he arrived for his internship, Berg notes, the company "had data they had no idea how to interpret." Berg's models allowed the company to identify key features in their data set, reduce the levels of observed noise, and remove systematic errors. It was also enlightening for Berg. "After a while working there, I began to see that mathematics could be so important to these people. I never expected it."
Berg believes that the MITACS program is the best thing that could have happened to his him for his postdoc and he strongly recommends it to graduate students. Berg says that MITACS is where all the relevant partners needed for industrial experience are able to come together offering "real-world" experience outside of the academic bubble.
Canada is technologically sophisticated and is already a world leader in certain industrial sectors where mathematics is widely used. Internet banking is a real success story, where algorithms are used to ensure security. Biotech and telecommunications sectors, where Canada is already well respected on the world stage, have strong backbones in mathematics. Many resource-based industries are going high-tech, optimizing production in order to maximize resource use. Lumber and oil companies, for example, are increasingly using mathematics in everything from searching for resources to pricing.
"Math is the language of science. It's not surprising then that mathematics play a fundamental role in solving many technological and industrial problems in today's world," adds Gupta.
For more information on MITACS and its internship program visit the group's Web site.
Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent for Next Wave and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.