What can I do with mathematics?

Mathematics has helped arrest recent outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease.

Defeating Disease

From modeling microscopic genes and proteins to tracing the progression of an epidemic through a country, mathematics plays an important role in combating disease. For example, the basic model used to analyze the dynamics of infectious disease is a system of differential equations. A new field called “data mining”, involving statistics and pattern recognition, helps locate significant information in the vast amounts of data collected from studies of diseases in populations. Mathematics also plays a key role in connecting changes in the human genome to specific diseases.

Mathematics has helped recent fights against foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom and against Chagas disease—a disease affecting millions of people in Latin America. Epidemiologists studying the foot-and-mouth epidemic used mathematical models to conclude that early efforts were insufficient to stop what would become a calamitous spread of the disease. The government accepted the conclusions and took a course of action that, although drastic, did indeed arrest the outbreak.

In Latin America, mathematicians computationally tested several courses of action against Chagas disease and found a surprisingly simple yet highly effective step (keeping dogs out of the bedroom) to greatly reduce the infection rate. These examples share three important characteristics: a mathematical model of the disease, modern computers to do calculations required by the model, and researchers with the insight to design the former so as to take advantage of the power of the latter.

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Infectious Diseases of Humans: Dynamics and Control, R. M. Anderson and R. M. May.

Article © AMS Mathematical Moments program

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While the main motivation to choose math as a major should stem from a combination of keen interest and high ability in math, students are naturally concerned about the opportunities available to a mathematics major or a mathematics teaching major after graduation. At this time, the math major appears to be in a better position than many other majors for employment in business, industry, government agencies, and teaching. The prospects are also good for well-qualified students to obtain support for graduate studies in either mathematics or mathematics education. Also a major in mathematics is excellent preparation for further study in many other fields.

In order to help you clarify your thoughts on what you want to get out of your collegiate experience as a math major, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Why do I like mathematics? What is it about math that attracts me to majoring in mathematics?
  • What type of mathematics do I like? Do I like the computational aspect? The rigor and logic? The problem solving experience? The theoretical aspect? Which content areas interest me?
  • What do I want to do for a career? Do I want to teach, or do I want pursue other avenues? If you want to teach, then:
    • what age group(s) do you want to teach? PreK, 1-6, 6-9, 9-12, college?
    • do you want to teach just mathematics, or do you want to have the flexibility to teach other fields as well?
  • If you are not interested in a career in teaching, then: are you interested in a career in business, industry, government, nonprofits, other alternatives?
  • How much education do I want to complete? Bachelors, Masters, or Ph.D.? Do I want to enter the work force right after graduation with the option to pursue graduate work later?
  • What do I need to do in order to further my career prospects?
  • What should I be doing academically to further my goals? Should I pick up a minor in another area? Should I try to double major?
  • What extracurriculars should I become involved in to further my goals? For example, should I get involved with the math club? Should I participate in the MCM Modeling Competition?
  • What types of work experience should I try to get to further my goals? Should I consider volunteer work experiences such as tutoring? Should I consider internships?
  • What organizations should I become involved in? What conferences or meetings might it be helpful to attend?


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