From Algebra to Real-World Analysis: What Can You Do with a Math Major?

Kelly Schlessman has four years of experience as a Statistical Programmer at The EMMES Corporation in Rockville, Maryland. She attended and studied mathematics at Ohio Wesleyan University (a Schuler school) and Ohio State University. Her sister, Amy Schlessman, is an AmeriCorps Scholar Coach at Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep and interviewed her for the Schuler Scholar blog. Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Kelly!

Kelly and Amy are pictured at left.

Amy: Can you explain your journey from high school to college to EMMES? What did you study in college and graduate school?

Kelly: When I graduated from high school, I had no idea what I wanted to study in college. I have always had a very wide range of interests and hobbies. What if I made the wrong choice? The answer is (if you’re like me): you change your mind. I began my freshman year studying French. During my sophomore year, I ultimately decided that I’d like to go into a more technical field, and stuck with math.

I discovered quickly that math was not an easy major. Some topics were interesting and easy for me to comprehend, while others were terribly difficult and frustrating. But I persisted, and as I neared graduation I began to wonder what to do next. I sought advice from one of my professors, who helped me understand what different types of graduate programs might be of interest to me.

After receiving my Bachelor’s degree, I entered a graduate program at the Ohio State University to study Applied Statistics. Statistics is a branch of mathematics that is widely used every day by companies and researchers seeking to organize, understand, and analyze their data. During my two years at Ohio State I began to discover the many types of jobs available to statisticians, from insurance to government to companies big and small all over the world.

I decided to pursue a job in the field of Biostatistics, which is basically applying statistics to scientific or biological data, often in the medical field. I got a job with a company called The EMMES Corporation, which assists with data management and statistical analysis for clinical trials.

What is a typical day at EMMES? Why did you choose a career with this organization?

I was interested in working on clinical trials simply because it seemed like such important research. I liked the idea of contributing to new medical treatments that can help people.

The projects that I work on are typically collaborations between the government, academic institutions or hospitals, pharmaceuticals companies, and organizations like EMMES. Our role is to receive data collected at clinic sites all around the country (or sometimes the world) for many different trials. We organize and maintain databases, and ensure that the data we receive is accurate and complete. We then prepare summaries of the data for doctors and other researchers to review so they can be sure the vaccines are safe and decide how to proceed next.

As a programmer, I spend a lot of my time preparing reports for this purpose. We also do a lot of communicating back and forth with the rest of the study team; for example, we email clinical sites to ask for clarification on data that has been entered, or follow up on a participant in a trial who had a reaction to their treatment. There is a lot of collaboration. My coworkers at EMMES are a small but important part of the big clinical trials picture that help make medical advancements possible.

What are some of the projects you are currently developing?

The team that I work on at EMMES primarily deals with research on new vaccines: making sure that they are safe, determining what side effects may occur, and assessing their effectiveness at preventing disease. The goal of these is to ensure that the vaccines are safe, and to inform decisions on what the optimal dose should be. Other studies are large scale efficacy studies, with hundreds or even thousands of participants, to test how effective the vaccine is at preventing disease.

What challenges have you faced in college, graduate school, or the workforce? How did you overcome these challenges?

Self-doubt. As a female (who is decidedly on the introverted side), I often find it difficult to be assertive and to advocate for myself. Sometimes I lack self-confidence, which can make it especially intimidating to try new things, start a new job, or stand up and give a presentation to a group of colleagues during a meeting. It helps me to remind myself that just because I’m not the loudest person in the room doesn’t mean that I don’t have something meaningful to say.

So you’re a math person...which means you only like numbers, right?

Absolutely not. Deciding on a college major was an especially difficult decision for me because I am interested in so many different things. One of the perks of attending a liberal arts school was that I was able to take courses in a wide variety of disciplines. Some of my favorites were psychology and art history. In my free time, I love to read, play tennis, cook, play the piano, paint, sew, knit, or do most anything crafty.

What advice do you have for any of our Scholars looking to pursue a degree in mathematics?

If you aren’t sure what major/career path you want to follow, that’s okay! In your first year of college, you will have the opportunity to explore different academic disciplines and learn more about what’s out there. Keep an open mind. If you had told me when I was in high school that my future job description would contain words like ‘statistics’ or ‘programming’, I would have thought you were crazy. Math, statistics, and computer science all seemed too difficult for me to comprehend. Once I learned a bit about these topics I realized that these were things I could realistically understand and even build a future career around. Good luck and enjoy the journey!


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