When Mike Dairyko was an undergraduate at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., his linear algebra class had him visiting office hours nearly every week. It was the first time a class hadn’t come easily to him. Not every student would keep pursuing his hardest subject, but Dairyko loved the challenge.

“I liked not being able to figure out the answer right away and overcoming the struggle,” he said. “That sense of accomplishment when you figure out a problem or you write the proof up nicely—it’s a good feeling.”

That defining class became the first step in Dairyko’s mathematical journey, which would involve many more math classes and summer research experiences for undergraduates (REUs). Today, Dairyko is a fifth-year graduate student at Iowa State University pursuing a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics.

“I fell in love with the techniques in math and the really cool things you can do with it,” he said.

Dairyko’s research focuses on challenges in graph theory, which he explains in analogies: imagine trying to strategically place the smallest number of speakers in a crowded room so that everyone in the room can best hear, or arrange the smallest number of power stations in an electrical grid that could power every house.

“I have my elevator speech, so you get the idea of what I’m doing,” he said. “But it’s just an idea—a conceptual thing.”

This summer, Dairyko attended a six-week summer program, the Math-to-Industry Boot Camp, to tackle a new challenge—applying the critical thinking skills he has honed in graduate school to the technology industry. The program, designed to provide graduate students with training and expertise that is valuable for employment outside of academia, is held at the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications on the University of Minnesota campus.

“The goal is to get you used to seeing what an industry math problem would be like versus an academic math problem,” he said.

While there, he worked with a group on designing city infrastructure improvement based on mobility data in Beijing. His group worked with GPS data and machine learning models to identify two areas predicted to have dense populations of bike users where enhancing bike culture and related infrastructure could reduce traffic congestion.

His Iowa State faculty advisers, Leslie Hogben and Michael Young, were the ones who alerted him to the Math-to-Industry Boot Camp, telling him “our goal is to help you get a job doing something you want to do.”

“Everyone here is really supportive,” Dairyko said. “I like the collaborative environment where we’re all in this together, we all end up doing our own work but if you need to bounce ideas off of people they’re open.”

*By Elizabeth Peterson
Photo by Will Stone*