By Bea Stollnitz
As an undergraduate, I studied computer science, partially in Portugal where I grew up and partially in the UK. When I completed my degree, I intended to stay in the UK for grad school. However, an exciting work opportunity in the US as a software developer enticed me to postpone my goal. “I'll work for a couple of years, and then I'll apply to grad school,” I thought. But my work kept me engaged and always offered new opportunities to grow — and a couple of years turned into fifteen! During that time, I worked first as a software engineer and a manager at Microsoft, and later started my own software consultancy. I thoroughly enjoyed solving the technical challenges that I faced daily in my work, but in the back of my mind I still longed to satisfy my passion for learning by studying more math and getting a graduate degree.
Once I decided to go for it, the Applied Mathematics department at UW quickly became my top choice. That was partly because the program aligned so perfectly with my goals, and partly because my husband, who completed his PhD in the department, spoke so highly of it. I brushed up on my math skills, gave up on my job and paycheck, and started school. The pace was intense and the workload was very demanding, but the topics were interesting and the professors were genuinely motivated to help. By taking advantage of office hours and class discussion boards, and by collaborating with other students, I felt supported throughout the program. Some classes, like Scientific Computing (AMATH 581) built on topics that I was already interested in. Others, like Fundamentals of Optimization (AMATH 515) opened up fascinating new worlds that I enjoyed exploring. Eventually I found my place in the data-science related classes, such as Inferring Structure of Complex Systems (AMATH 563) and Computational Methods for Data Analysis (AMATH 582). This area perfectly combines my interests in mathematics and computer science, and my desire to work in a field built on a rigorous foundation but with strong practical applications.
I thoroughly enjoyed all the learning I did in class, but ultimately the highlight of my time in grad school was working as a teaching assistant for Applied Differential Equations (AMATH 351) with Professor Eli Shlizerman. While interacting with students, I discovered how rewarding it is for me to help others learn. I enjoyed guiding them through homework problems, answering their questions, and putting together study guides for them. I even enjoyed grading homework and exams because I could see which parts of the material they had trouble with, and then refine how I approached the rest of my responsibilities. Collaborating with Eli was a great experience — he's open to trying new teaching approaches and passionate about motivating students to learn. We worked well as a team.
When I first started my Master's degree, I knew it was going to change my life, but I wasn't sure exactly how. Meeting like-minded people was no doubt one of the most long-lasting perks of my time in the department. After the end of the school year, I've kept in regular contact with some of my closest colleagues, and hope to keep those friendships for life. That has opened up opportunities for collaborations on technical projects, recommendations for jobs, and continued learning through exchanges of ideas. I had high expectations for my time in grad school, and the AMATH department delivered.