Do the Math

Here we peek into the lives of three alumni who majored in math. They each share the pluses of their work, whether as an actuary, teacher or researcher. To them, it all adds up.

Sam Stechmann ’03Weather and Climate Researcher You could say that Sam Stechmann’s head is in the clouds, but to this mathematician, it’s a serious matter. He is researching weather and climate in his postdoctoral position at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“I mainly have been studying clouds and how they’re organized on different time and length scales,” Stechmann said. “I’m trying to understand the various aspects of weather and climate that aren’t understood now. I want to improve the models that are used to predict weather and climate.”

Weather forecasters use certain equations to see what the atmosphere will look like in the future. Stechmann wants to create the correct equations and different strategies for solving them on a computer.

“It all goes back to an independent study I did at St. Thomas,” he said. His senior year, Stechmann took an independent-study course, Fluid Dynamics and Numerical Methods for Fluid Dynamics, taught by Doug Dokken, Kurt Scholz and Mikhail Shvartsman.

“I started off at St. Thomas as a pre-med student but then I got to know some of the older students majoring in math and I just really liked it. I enjoyed the challenge,” Stechmann said. “I really liked doing physics, math and chemistry [his three majors at St. Thomas] so when I went to grad school I chose weather and climate classes because it employed all three.” Stechmann earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University, last May.

He received two fellowships for his postdoctoral research at UCLA: A mathematical sciences fellowship from the National Science Foundation and a climate and global change fellowship from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association.

In a few years when he’s done with his postdoctoral research,he hopes to teach and do research as a tenure-track professor.

“I’d like to come back to Minnesota, but you usually can’t be so picky,” said Stechmann, a Red Wing native.

Colleen Duffy ’03 Assistant Professor At the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Colleen Duffy knows that students enter her classroom with different levels of appreciation for math.

“There are students who dislike math and when they are done with class, they dislike math less,” she said. “A lot of students come in thinking math is interesting. I can share with them the cool parts of math and it’s great to see the light come on when they finally understand something. Math majors are really excited about math, and I help them explore it further.”

This is the profession Duffy envisioned many years ago. In high school, she helped her friends with their math homework, competed on the math team and completed math independent-study classes. So it was natural for her to major in mathematics at St. Thomas. She also majored in Spanish and minored in physics.

“I was friends with everyone on the faculty. They helped me get into graduate school and helped me succeed,” Duffy said.

“Cheri Shakiban was my adviser so I did a lot of research projects with her that greatly helped me in my Ph.D. program. I did applied research projects such as studying the stability of structures.” One project was inspired by the study of the historic collapse of the Tacoma Bridge in Washington. The suspension bridge collapsed in 1940 due to wind-induced vibration.

“We looked at a variety of structures to determine under what forces the structures would collapse. I set up a system of equations to see what happens if you change the number a little bit – is it still stable or will it collapse?”

Her independent study in abstract algebra with Melissa Shepard Loe helped her decide to concentrate in algebra in graduate study. Duffy earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, last May.

Duffy teaches three classes a semester at UW-Eau Claire. Her research focuses on noncommutative algebra.

Tom Dahl ’01 - Actuary It’s risky business, but that’s what an actuary loves. Tom Dahl deals with the financial impact of risk and uncertainty. He is an actuary at Federated Mutual Insurance Co.’s home office in Owatonna.

Federated specializes in business insurance; Dahl is one of four employees who works in the actuarial health insurance division.

One of his responsibilities is pricing. As most Americans are aware, health insurance costs continue to rise. Dahl explained,“Pricing is based on what it cost last year. We look at trends and we project how much it will cost the next year. We set our premiums so we’ll be able to make a small profit or at least break even.”

Dahl enjoys his work at Federated. “I get to see all phases of the health insurance process and I have a lot of autonomy in my work. I have friendly co-workers,” he added.

When he started his freshman year at St. Thomas, he knew that he would major in actuarial science. Later he tacked on a major in math.

“I always liked math,” Dahl said. His cousin worked for State Farm Insurance and suggested Dahl might like actuarial work, so in high school he participated in a mentorship program with St. Thomas alumnus Joe Paul ’88, an actuary.

His adviser at St. Thomas, Heekyung Youn, who taught several of his classes, helped him find an internship. For two years he interned at Mercer Consulting and worked with state Medicaid programs. He was hired at Mercer in Minneapolis after graduation and worked there until 2004.

“Then I decided that I didn’t want to live in the Twin Cities anymore. I needed a break so I moved to Owatonna for the Federated job. It’s a more relaxed pace of life – no rush hour! It takes me four minutes to drive to work ,” said Dahl, a Moorhead native.

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