Ten questions for Goodnight Scholars alumni as part of the Goodnight Scholars Program’s 10th anniversary celebration. This month we catch-up with Tyler Maltba ’16, who didn’t let a severe medical diagnosis deter him from traveling to the West Coast in pursuit of a Ph.D. from the UC Berkeley Department of Statistics.
Goodnight Scholars Program: Where has life taken you since graduating from NC State?
Tyler Maltba ’16: I am a Ph.D. student in the Department of Statistics at UC Berkeley where I spend the vast majority of my time working on my research in probability theory and mathematical statistics.
What are your main mathematical interests?
I am mainly interested in large finite random mathematical structures such as random graphs and networks, stochastic differential equations, and the interplay between the two. A particular interest of mine is to continue developing the mathematics that governs the interplay of uncertain dynamics on networks and dynamics on uncertain networks in order to mathematically formalize uncertain dynamics on uncertain networks, which has many applications in physics, computer science, and biology. Some specific problems that I’m currently working on arise in interacting particle systems and hemodynamics.
Did your undergraduate self envision being where you currently are today?
I knew that wanted to pursue my Ph.D. and a research career in mathematics by my sophomore year of undergrad at NCSU, but I was far from knowing any of the details of my current research area. Under the guidance of my undergrad advisor, I began the process that she called “tasting.” I began studying graduate-level topics in the major branches of mathematics with an open mind such as tasting the different flavors of mathematics to see what I enjoyed and if I was naturally inclined to a specific area. The key point is that I kept an open mind because if I had not, I would not be working in my current research area. When I began studying advanced topics, I thought that I was going to be an algebraist while simultaneously despising probability theory. I loved the absoluteness of abstract algebra and it was quite difficult for me to grasp certain probabilistic concepts and techniques. But as I pursued these topics in depth, my views on the two subjects dramatically changed. I now find the absoluteness of algebra somewhat monotonous, although useful, while I’m fascinated my the random processes that surround us in our daily lives.
Was there a moment where your academic trajectory started to come together?
Halfway through my junior year of undergrad I knew that I would specialize in probability theory and random processes, but it wasn’t until my senior year after I was diagnosed with a tumor that I began working in my current research area. My medical condition sparked an interest in capillary hemodynamics of the human brain and the need to reroute blood flow due to certain types of blockages. I began viewing capillary systems as certain types of mathematical networks with various random properties. However, I already knew that the dynamics of the blood flow in an individual segment of the network was governed by certain types of stochastic differential equations. In order to gain insight into the uncertain dynamics over the entire uncertain network, I began developing mathematical techniques to bridge the gap between these two models. As of now my research group and I have made significant contributions in this area, but there is always more to learn. So, thinking back to my early years of undergrad, I did math just because I enjoyed it. Now, when I take a step back from my work, even after years of research, I am still amazed that my work has the potential to save lives, and that I’m personally connected to it.
What is your fondest memory from your undergraduate years?
I do not want to isolated a single event, but my fondest memories come from the relationships that I built over the years, both professional and social. Professionally speaking, I became fairly close with more than one faculty member in the University Honors program and math department at NC State, but particularly my undergrad advisor Min Kang. I recall spending at least three hours a week in her office during my last years of undergrad, discussing various topics from our work to completely unrelated topics. I feel like half of the time I was probably sitting there in silence amazed both by her mathematical knowledge and by how seriously she took her role as a mentor. At the time, the happiest moment of my professional career came when she validated the proof of my first original theorem, but in retrospect, it was really all of the times she pushed me, disciplined me, and encouraged me at all of the right times. Other than creative freedom in my research, her mentorship is my motivation for pursuing a career as a professor.
…Everyone should become a mentor. Not only will this help to reveal what qualities to look for in a person when searching for your own mentor, but in my opinion, there is nothing more rewarding in life than helping someone with personal growth.
And you developed meaningful relationships with your peers, right?
While I was an undergrad, I built lifelong friendships with some of my fellow students. Almost all of my serious friendships began as two or more classmates having a discussion or working in some form of group outside of class, often times in the UHP library in Clark Hall. The discussions had a wide variety of topics including philosophy, music, politics, social issues, science, and school work, but they eventually became personal. As weeks turned into months and months into years, the length of the discussions grew from hours to entire nights and longer. These classmates turned into friends, and for some of them, eventually roommates. Those many days and nights in Clark library, the dining hall, the bar, and our homes, we learned about ourselves and each other, our failures and success, our dreams and ambitions, our loves and heartbreaks, and our friendships. These are truly my fondest memories of undergrad.
How did your education from NC State prepare you for your current academic pursuits?
I think that I have established in my previous responses that mentorship was the by far the biggest influence in my academic career so far. Through the help of many faculty members, along with trial and error, I learned about my skill set and what I can and cannot bring to the table in a research environment. Their guidance and experience helped me to develop my sense of mathematical maturity, which without, I may have spent months pursuing a dead-end project.
Did you find other resources at NC State beneficial?
The sheer size of the NC State means that its students have an incredible number of resources including a large library collections, numerous faculty in diverse research areas, multiple networking events, undergraduate research opportunities, and undergraduate grants and scholarships, all of which I took advantage. Speaking of scholarships and grants, not only did the Goodnight Scholars Program help pay for my education, but they also funded my first summer research project via an enrichment grant, which led to a summer research appointment at the University of Chicago the following summer. It’s difficult to list every single part of my education that helped prepare me, but I think it is safe to say that almost every aspect of my education at NC State, if not all, helped shaped my career.
How are you spending your free time nowadays?
To be honest, I spend most my free time working on my research, not because I have to, but because I enjoy what I do and want to. Other than my research, I spend most of my time outside partaking in various activities such as climbing, biking, meditating, and reading. I also have knack for getting together with a group of friends to find independent films on the internet and provide somewhat ridiculous commentary.
Is there any advice you think is important for current NC State students and Goodnight Scholars to hear?
I will leave all of you with some archetypical college and life advice. It’s archetypical for a reason. Be a mentor and mentee. I made it clear how my mentors have helped shape who I am today. I think any young person, not just college students, will benefit from some time of mentorship. However, I also think everyone should become a mentor. Not only will this help to reveal what qualities to look for in a person when searching for your own mentor, but in my opinion, there is nothing more rewarding in life than helping someone with personal growth.
Also be passionately curious and have an open mind. My parents always told me growing up that “if you find something that you love to do, you will never have to work a day in your life.” I don’t know how true that is in general, but so far it seems to be true for me. I love what I do, so going to work is never a chore. I found out that I loved mathematics because I was passionately curious. Not many people know that I did not originally study math when I started undergrad. If the topic is ever brought up in conversation, I find that most people assume that I always wanted to study math, which is not true. I have always enjoyed learning, no matter the discipline. So when I was the early stages of my college career and was exposed to how powerful mathematics can be, from the social sciences to physics, my curiosity took over. I found what I was meant to do and the rest is history. I hope all of you will let your curiosity passionately guide you to something that you love to do.
Photography credit: Tyler Maltba