by Darcy Lee, VP of Strategic Growth & Partnerships, Six Feet Up, and Women & Hi Tech Board Member Active Emeritus
In 2023, mathematicians are in increasing demand in a variety of fields, including energy and healthcare. In fact, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2021 and 2031 the job market for mathematicians is expected to grow by a whopping 31 percent, much faster than average. Additionally, the median annual wage for mathematicians in 2021 was $108,100.
The once-narrow career field that included finance and education has broadened drastically to include mathematics careers in software engineering, data science, robotics, patent law, biotechnology, energy, climate study, national security, astronomy, space exploration, and more.
Much of this expansion in career opportunities for mathematicians is due to the growing importance of model designs, analysis of complex systems, and Big Data. Companies want to make data-driven decisions, meaning they must rely on problem solvers with deep analytical skills to answer hard questions. Enter mathematicians, who figure out the right questions to ask, make sense of advanced algorithms and complex systems, and bring their problem-solving expertise to the table to provide clarity and solutions to real-world problems.
Recently, we had the pleasure of interviewing a professional mathematician, Jennifer Whaley, Principal Systems Engineer at SAS.
The Early Years
Jennifer’s interest in math began in childhood. As a young girl she played school with her cousin. “She was two years older than me and always wanted to be the teacher, so I was always the student,” she noted. For both, math was their favorite subject. Spoiler alert: her cousin became a high school math teacher, and Jennifer found a career as an applied mathematician.
Around 5th or 6th grade, Jennifer’s interest in math became a love of math. She loved that it was rules oriented and fact based; there was a concreteness to mathematics, and she was attracted to the use of logic to solve problems. It was also during middle school when some of Jennifer’s key personality traits began to shine – competition and responsibility. Her math class had a weeklong math competition each spring. She learned that the top two performers would grade the competition and, you guessed it – she wanted to do that. “I enjoyed the responsibility of being in the top two.”
The College Years
In her senior year of high school, Jennifer was recruited to major in Mathematics at Meredith College, a liberal arts college and one of the largest independent women’s colleges in the U.S. She liked the small student-teacher ratio where professors had an open-door policy. Students at Meredith were encouraged, supported, and challenged to find where they fit in, and Jennifer really leaned into this. For example, Jennifer joined the math club, which brought in former students to present on a variety of topics to help give students insights into how their mathematics degrees proved valuable in a variety of fields (e.g., federal aviation controller).
Like many, Jennifer’s college path was not exactly linear. She began at Meredith as a double major in Mathematics and Computer Science. Although she enjoyed programming, she remembers sitting in the lab thinking, “I’m more interested in real life applications and problem solving that helps people.” So, Whaley dropped the Computer Science major and eventually picked Economics up as a double major.
In the 1980s, there were no clear degree or career paths for data analysts and data scientists, but that’s essentially what Whaley wanted to do. She was able to participate in an internship program that combined these skillsets. There she applied her desire to use logic and problem solving alongside her math chops to solve real world problems. She worked for two semesters with a local electric utility focused on load forecasting. She got hands-on experience in data-step programming with SAS, figuring out relationships and using algorithms to predict reoccurrence. Soon after, Whaley graduated from Meredith College with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Economics.
The stories within data fascinate Jennifer, so after her college internship she knew she wanted to invest her career in the energy space in North Carolina. From 1988 to 2011, she worked in a variety of roles including analyst, programmer, economist, and systems engineer. In each role, her focus was energy and/or sustainability.
“I gained valuable skills and insights from all the roles I had before coming here to SAS in 2011, but even during college I knew I wanted to work at SAS,” said Whaley. SAS is a North Carolina-based organization that builds analytics solutions to transform data into intelligence. From 2011 to 2015, Jennifer worked in forecasting and advanced analytics as a Systems Engineer at SAS and was then promoted to Sr. Systems Engineer in 2015. In 2021, she moved into her current role as Principal Systems Engineer, where she now advises energy clients on emerging topics pertaining to load forecasting, particularly the challenges incorporating DERs and improving renewable forecasts.
In addition to her role at SAS, Jennifer is also a member of Women in Clean Energy (WICE), speaks at industry conferences, colleges and universities (including the Indiana University Analytics Department), and mentors others, including those who participate in the SAS Hackathon.
Advice for young women who want to pursue Mathematics degrees and careers:
- Participate in internships. Not only do they help you better focus in on where and how you want to work in your career, they teach you invaluable business and soft skills such as how to participate in meetings, how to send emails, etc.
- Take statistics and public speaking courses. The ability to deliver technical information at the right level is incredibly important.
- Be prepared when you go into meetings. Do your research prior and always be prepared to ask a few questions, and to share your thoughts (especially if you are an introvert and this is out of your comfort zone).
- At various points in your career, stop and re-evaluate. Make sure you’re focused on the right thing, and that what you’re currently doing is what you actually want to be doing.
- Have mentors, both within your organization and outside your organization. For women, it’s also especially important to ensure some of your mentors are female.
- “Be like silly putty and stretch.” Though early in your career you may go deeply into only a few areas, make sure you’re always growing. Knowing a good deal of things in many areas is key to leadership roles, especially those in consulting.
Careers in mathematics can seem abstract, just like some math itself. But for those who are passionate and in alignment with their goals, it is increasingly possible to build a math-focused career. Math is the foundation of many other STEM fields and learning which industries interest you is a great way to make your passion for math and your career goals add up.
For those in Indiana, Women & Hi Tech provides opportunities to network with other women and organizations across STEM professions and industries. So, if you’re interested in learning more, including opportunities for internships and where or how to apply a degree in mathematics, connect with us!
Connect with Jennifer: