Math Professor Works to Keep Students Off
"The Street"

Special from The Record

March 17, 2010Bookmark and Share

For years, Chris Wiggins has observed a common trend in the post-Columbia career paths of his top math students: They join Wall Street banks. “They’re resigned to becoming quants,” says Wiggins, 39, a professor of applied mathematics at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. “They don’t know about other options.”

Chris Wiggins, professor of applied math, hopes more of his students look beyond Wall Street for career options and consider job opportunities in New York’s nascent tech start-up space. (Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)
Chris Wiggins, professor of applied math, hopes more of his students look beyond Wall Street for career options and consider job opportunities in New York’s nascent tech start-up space.
Image credit: Eileen Barroso / Columbia University

If Wiggins had his way, more of his students would join New York City’s burgeoning tech start-up scene. The payoffs, he says, would be huge: The influx of new talent would expand the city’s technology sector, the brain drain of math and engineering students to West Coast schools and companies would ebb, and New York City’s intellectual environment would be enriched. “I want young people to realize the creative things they can do with math,” he says.

To broaden his students’ career options, Wiggins teamed up with Huffington Post website co-founder Jonah Peretti two years ago to organize a series of on-campus meet-ups between Internet developers and Columbia’s math community in which the scientists present real-world quantitative problems, and Columbians help solve them.

The success of these gatherings has since led to another initiative: Wiggins, along with Evan Korth, a New York University professor, and Hilary Mason, a scientist at a local start-up, has organized a summer internship program that will place New York City college students at high-tech companies beginning this year.

At a March 3 Startup-Math Collaborative meeting, nearly 100 Columbia faculty and students heard presentations from developers about their mathematical and computational challenges. Mark Angelillo, chief technology officer of the wine site Snooth, offered examples of how engineers use quantitative methods to decipher lengthy wine names and recommend new wines to users. Tom Quisel, a software engineer from the dating site OkCupid, took the stage to ask for ideas about tracking matches. “Getting an outside perspective on how we design things for OkCupid was really valuable,” said Quisel following the event. Among the suggestions offered by students was tracking which users exchange phone numbers or e-mail addresses and following up to find out whether they went on a date.

Isaac Greenbaum (ENG’06,’10) said the event gave him new ideas about how to apply his degrees. An applied math major, he was valedictorian of his class and went to work at Citigroup after graduation. Now, he’s studying for his master’s in computer science. “One of the reasons I came back to school was to get into the start-up field,” he said. “This really gave me a good opportunity to see how I could take the skills I have learned, and hope to continue to learn, and implement them in the real world.”

Adrian Haimovich (ENG’10) said he appreciated hearing from entrepreneurs that math was essential to their success. “You don’t want to think about math as this abstract thing you’ve studied for four years,” he says. “These meetings are a great way to see how math is affecting a whole culture.”

The summer internship process started by Wiggins, Korth and Mason will kick off with a 24-hour “Hackathon” at NYU on April 2 and 3. “It will be a chance for start-ups to meet students who are interested,” says Wiggins. High-tech companies will bring code and datasets; students will develop new code and come up with new ways of exploiting and organizing the data.

“I see this as an opportunity for academics in New York to contribute to start-up culture,” says Wiggins, referring to the pivotal role that Stanford’s dean of engineering, Frederick Terman, played in the rise of Silicon Valley. “I think it takes people from academia, who are used to thinking on a decade or two-decade time frame, to realize that sort of culture change.”

—by Anna Kuchment