College of Science launches RIT’s 8th Ph.D. program

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A. Sue Weisler

Associate Professor Elizabeth Cherry and College of Science Dean Sophia Maggelakis were the drivers behind creating a Ph.D. in mathematical modeling.

This semester, RIT is launching a Ph.D. degree in mathematical modeling, elevating the emerging area of applied mathematics into its own program of study. The new program is the university’s eighth doctoral degree and the fourth in the College of Science.

Mathematical modeling translates real situations—such as heart arrhythmias, the effects of climate change or the flow of plastic in the Great Lakes—into measurable quantities. It’s a creative process and a powerful tool for providing insights into real problems.

Mathematical modeling typically is taught as a course at the undergraduate and graduate levels, said Elizabeth Cherry, director of the new program and an associate professor in the School of Mathematical Sciences.

“To have a Ph.D.-level program built around mathematical modeling as a center point is definitely new and unique,” Cherry said. “We may be the first university doing this at the doctoral level.”

Sophia Maggelakis, dean of RIT’s College of Science and a mathematical biologist, predicted the need for the program more than a decade ago as head of the department of mathematics and statistics. Then-RIT President Albert Simone encouraged her to write a proposal and seek industry input. The positive response led the college to form the School of Mathematical Sciences in anticipation of a future program.

“The problems mathematical modeling addresses require physics, chemistry, math, biology and data science all in one system,” Maggelakis said. “A team of scientists who are working on complex systems and problems needs mathematicians with expertise in mathematical modeling to help solve these problems. That synergy is required in interdisciplinary work.”

The interdisciplinary program starts this fall with a diverse group of eight students. They will become experts in mathematical modeling and in one of the program’s application areas, either biomedicine, data analytics and simulation of complex systems, earth systems modeling, finance or network analysis.

According to Cherry, most applied mathematics programs focus on developing techniques inspired by real-world problems but leave the actual applications to others. RIT’s program differs in its approach to creating models and predictions and testing them with real data to determine if the model works. Students also will learn to interpret and translate solutions for their clients.

“We want students to learn modeling as a whole process,” Cherry said. “I tell students that we want to prepare them to be mathematical consultants. It’s not just doing the math in the middle. They need to be able to communicate with people who may not have a strong math background to provide meaningful solutions.”

The program will give students opportunities to sharpen their communication skills in preparation for an interdisciplinary internship, an unusual component of a Ph.D. degree, Maggelakis noted. Completion of the program also requires an interdisciplinary dissertation.

“When our students graduate, they will increasingly have job opportunities related to this type of mathematics,” Cherry said. “Whether they want to work in industry or academia, mathematical modeling is an area of growth.”