“Math acts as a bridge”

Q&A with Mili Shah, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematics and statistics

By April Arnold

Mili Shah, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematics, has taught at Loyola since 2007. A guest researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, she received her Ph.D. from the Computational and Applied Mathematics Department at Rice University.

Shah is the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation S-STEM grant that will provide academically talented students who demonstrate financial need with scholarships to study in the computer science, physics, mathematics and statistics (CPaMS) departments at Loyola. The CPaMS Scholars Program will provide two cohorts—in consecutive years—the opportunity to receive a rigorous liberal arts education with a focus on interdisciplinary science. In addition, Scholars will participate in STEM research and internship opportunities that will allow them to gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence necessary to succeed in STEM careers and graduate education.

Photo by Nick Alexopulos

Photo by Nick Alexopulos

What do you like most about teaching at Loyola?

The students! My role is to get them excited about mathematics. I try to apply what we learn in the classroom to applications that the students would find interesting. For example, one of my favorite lectures in my differential equations course deals with modeling a zombie apocalypse. When you think about these fictional apocalyptic scenarios, many of them essentially mimic a virus outbreak. There are really sound mathematics that model the spread of viruses, and you can apply the same ideas to model a zombie epidemic.

Interestingly enough the types of differential equations that model a zombie apocalypse can also be used to model the evolution of a romance; I love that math can link two things, like zombies and romantic relationships.

Can you talk a little about your research?

Since January of 2009, I’ve been working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology on robotics in the Manipulation and Mobility Systems Group, a division of the Intelligent Systems Division lab. My research involves analyzing and creating metrics that describe how well a robot is able to locate an object. This idea poses a lot of interesting mathematical problems.

How did you get into that type of research?

I’m an applied mathematician, and I’m always looking for problems where I can apply my research. Roger Eastman, Ph.D., professor of computer science at Loyola, had been working there on his own research and encouraged me to look into this field.

What do you like about the research?

Most people wouldn’t think mathematics is very hands-on, and we tend to look at math as something you have to learn. When you realize it’s useful, you have a vested interest and you can get excited about it. I really feel strongly about this idea, that if you give people a reason why mathematics is useful, then they will want to learn it.

Can you describe an “aha!” moment in your research?

For my doctorate, I was working on a project modeling symmetric molecules, basically trying to understand how molecules move. I created an algorithm for this, and then I thought, “Why don’t I apply this to a picture of myself?” It turned out that the result was the best symmetric approximation to an image.

Here again, math acts as a bridge for things that would seemingly never go together.

Photo by Daniel Bedell

How are our Jesuit values reflected in your teaching and/or scholarship?

I try to embody cura personalis with my research, my teaching, and my outreach. I think it’s great to bring my research into the classroom so that students can see the cool things they can do with mathematics. I enjoy using skills that I learn from teaching to express mathematical ideas to colleagues when I am doing my research.

I also enjoy sharing my teaching and research with kids through outreach, especially now through the new CPaMS Scholars Program. For this program, it’s all about bringing kids in to study math, physics, and computer science.

What is the CPaMS Scholars Program?

The CPaMS Scholars Program is a way to recruit a diverse set of students into computer science, physics, and mathematics statistics.

We are excited because it’s interdisciplinary, and it’s fun. We wanted this to be something that the Scholars could be excited about. That was part of the reason why we chose those three departments—computer science, physics, and mathematics statistics—as they are naturally connected.

At the same time, we wanted to make sure that the Scholars succeeded. So we researched ways of doing this. One of the important ways is to have a support network. This is why the program uses a cohort model: students are paired with other students as well as with highly-motivated faculty and staff.

We are also dedicated to connecting the Scholars with a diverse group of STEM professionals in the community. In their second year, the Scholars are involved in a colloquium series in which we invite professionals from the Greater Baltimore area to talk about their careers in these fields. We want the Scholars to be aware of the options available to them with a STEM degree.

What are your hobbies and interests outside of teaching?

I love art and design, and I love evaluating things. I also love to travel. Tulum and Europe have been some recent trips. We were in Provence, a place with great food and great scenery, just a lovely place.

Do you have a favorite book, movie, or quote?

Amelie. I love the coloring, the quirkiness of it. And I love the spirit of the movie. It’s about a girl, an introvert looking for love. It’s just quirky and fun. I just adore her story.

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