UChicago launches PhD program in computational and applied mathematics

Greg Borzo
News Officer, Physical SciencesUniversity of Chicago News Office

The University of Chicago’s Division of the Physical Sciences is launching a PhD program in computational and applied mathematics, part of an expansion into a field at the intersection of big data and scientific discovery.

The program, which has started accepting applications, has engaged faculty from numerous departments, including statistics, computer science, mathematics, neurobiology, human genetics, and astronomy and astrophysics. It follows the division’s addition of an undergraduate major in computational and applied mathematics and the hiring of new faculty focused on the interdisciplinary field.

“The University’s expanding focus on computational and applied mathematics provides a training ground for a new generation of scholars who will harness data in new and innovative ways to produce discoveries across the sciences,” said Edward “Rocky” Kolb, dean of the division and the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy and Astrophysics. “The doctoral program will ensure that massive data sets and powerful computational algorithms to which scientists increasingly have access produce rigorous and correct results.”

UChicago’s scientific community identified the need for a graduate-level program that provides students with the tools to develop mathematical and statistical models for the massive datasets generated by experimental work, as well as computational tools to handle the datasets and models. The Department of Statistics took the lead in 2007, and a year later began hiring faculty within the department and jointly with other departments. The undergraduate major was added in 2014, growing to 55 students this year. The University’s Committee on Computational and Applied Mathematics launched last year, creating the doctoral program.

“Mathematical modeling and computation play an increasing role in these scientific domains, and data is being generated with ever-increasing speed and abundance,” said Mary Silber, statistics professor and director of the program. “This has led to a demand for researchers who can identify and tackle the resulting computational and applied mathematics problems.”

The new doctoral program is unique in that it’s centered in statistics. But it goes beyond statistical data analysis to include mathematical modeling, simulation, computation and other fields, said Yali Amit, a professor of statistics and member of the committee.

The recent faculty hires and launch of the doctoral program will help meet a strong demand for expertise in computational and applied mathematics, with scientists across the University eager to explore how such know-how can impact their research, according to Jonathan Weare, an assistant professor of statistics.

“The new program should allow us to attract a group of computational and applied math PhD students looking for opportunities to involve themselves in applications at UChicago and build stronger connections with other disciplines,” he said.

A $1.75 million National Science Foundation grant is providing support for the initial cohort of doctoral students, postdoctoral scholars and faculty. The first class is projected to include five PhD students, and the program will grow to about 25 students. In addition, it will support the continued expansion of UChicago’s undergraduate major.

“Students are flocking to this field because there are lots of jobs out there for those who understand how to explain or predict things with data,” Amit said. “So-called big data is used not only in scientific research, but also in advertising, sales and marketing, banking, insurance—even elections. Today, skills with statistical tools are very marketable.”

But he warned that the increase in data acquisition and computing power can be a liability if it’s not employed correctly, with clear mathematical and statistical assumptions that can be verified or refuted.

In addition to the course work, the PhD program will offer a consulting seminar and a weekly colloquium. It also includes short courses in mathematical and statistical programming, parallel programming and machine learning that will be open to the entire University community.

Above all, the program will have strong links to scientific research at the University, Silber said. “Computational and applied mathematics are fields that are fundamentally interdisciplinary and largely fueled by problems arising in scientific domains. I want our students to experience the creative process of turning a scientific problem into the right mathematical question. I also want our students to have the opportunity to collaborate with scientists,” she said.