By Jeff Keeling
When it comes to, oh, everyday stuff such as strategic supply chain planning, reverse logistics and the impact of information technology on corporate efficiency, Dr. Baptiste Lebreton knows his stuff. The applied mathematician, an operations research manager for Eastman Chemical Co.’s data science group, also knows that without an ability to translate that expertise into terms non-mathematicians can understand, his hard skills are much less valuable in the business world.
“We can’t hire people that are mathematically brilliant but can’t communicate,” Lebreton said one recent afternoon following a guest teaching stint at East Tennessee State University. “You deal with people that are not mathematical experts, so you have to explain to them in simple fashion what you’re doing.”
Thanks to a partially grant-funded math course at East Tennessee State University, Lebreton is helping Dr. Michelle Joyner’s students get a head start on melding the theoretical with the practical.
As two small groups of Joyner’s students looked on, Lebreton stood at the front of an ETSU classroom, numbers and formulas scrawled on a white board behind him. The students are spending part of the semester working on a real-world problem, with Lebreton offering help and advice. Those who get it – and getting it involves skill at both computer science and math, along with sufficient soft skills – are hot commodities in the world of industry, Lebreton and Joyner said.
“If you’re good at math and good at solving problems, and can communicate the solution making it practical, you have huge opportunities,” said Lebreton, who came to Eastman when the company acquired Solutia in 2012.
That’s a big reason Joyner, an associate professor of mathematics and statistics, has wholeheartedly embraced an effort spearheaded by the Mathematical Association of America and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. With funding from the National Science Foundation, the joint effort helps professors learn about non-academic careers and internship opportunities for students, guidance on developing business and industry connections, and training on helping students develop skills that employers value.
“The model in academia is starting to change toward meeting the needs of employers, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here,” Joyner said. “The industries I’ve talked with want students to be able to work on real problems, not textbook problems. That’s why I wanted to bring this program to ETSU.”
In Joyner’s special topics course, “Preparation for Industrial Careers in Mathematical Sciences,” Lebreton and another partner from Massachusetts-based MIT Lincoln Laboratory work with small groups of students like Cassidy Shaffer. The industry partners propose a problem and help guide the student groups toward a solution.
Shaffer, who will intern at Eastman this summer after graduating with a bachelor’s in math and a minor in computer science, said the course has provided her a glimpse into the skills she’ll need to succeed.
“It’s nice to get real world experience, because in business you’re always working in groups,” said Shaffer, who will begin pursuing a master’s in business analytics at UT-Knoxville next fall. “I like to work with data a lot, and find ways businesses can make more money,” she said. “There’s a software they use in (Lebreton’s) department that models business processes and I’ve never worked with that before, so it’s been real interesting to learn another programming language.”
Joyner said she hopes to continue offering the course. At the end of this semester, a chosen team from the class will submit to outside judges a technical report and video presentation detailing a solution to the original problem.
While he’s typically looking for hires with several years of experience outside of the classroom, Lebreton said helping in the classroom, which he’s also done at Georgia Tech and in Europe, can pay dividends. “We can get in touch with students through these kinds of opportunities and see which ones we might be able to hire. If they can combine what they know from the theoretical side with the practical side, they have huge possibilities in IT, in supply chain and in consulting.”