SYSM Doctoral Program Produces Interdisciplinary Researchers

VCU’s Systems Modeling and Analysis Doctoral Program prepares mathematicians for jobs both inside and outside traditional academic fields, by training them in multiple areas of research by modeling systems to address  real, contemporary problems facing our world. The program’s curriculum combines intersecting mathematical disciplines including statistics, operations research, discrete mathematics, and applied mathematics to provide their students with an educational foundation in a number of modeling paradigms. The goal of the program is to produce independent and productive researchers, measured in large part by contributions to the body of knowledge in peer-reviewed journal publications.

“They have this broad toolbox right off the bat for approaching any kind of system that they encounter in the world, to understand it better and to make better decisions,” said Dr. Paul Brooks, Director for the Systems Modeling and Analysis Ph.D. Program.  

This cross-disciplinary program began in 2009 and is offered jointly by the Department of Statistical Sciences and Operations Research, and the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics. Since its inception, the program has graduated eleven students with Ph.D.s. Four of these alumni today hold academic positions and the other seven with government and industry positions. Noteworthy alumni include Derick Rivers, mathematical statistician at the Food and Drug Administration Center for Tobacco Products, Sudharshana Apte, research scientist at Altria, Ben Grannan, assistant professor at Furman University, and Shushan (Nika) Lazaryan, research analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.  Rivers and Apte were selected as VCU Top 10 under 10 Alumni, Grannan secured a new tenure-track position this year, and Lazaryan published a remarkable 5 journal articles from her dissertation..

“I knew I could take courses that would make me better at my job, besides just getting a Ph.D., ” said Lazaryan. “Even though my concentration in the program was in math, just the fact that I have a pretty good grasp of statistics, it can help me to work on a lot of projects at the Fed.”

The first semester of study in Systems Modeling and Analysis is dedicated to building student knowledge in multiple research areas offered by the program, after which students are encouraged to become involved in research that can potentially lead to publishable dissertation research. The program offers a series of one credit seminar classes that emphasize the development of good writing habits to prepare students to compose their dissertations. All students are required to take at least three 700-level classes, in which they acquire the mathematical expertise to assist a faculty member in their research.

Because the program is interdisciplinary, it’s faculty’s specialties range widely and their practical applications vary hugely. To name a few, Dr. Edward Boone is a Bayesian statistician who works with ecological models, Dr. Yongjia Song applies optimization under uncertainty to vehicle routing, and Dr. Angela Reynolds studies the role of inflammation in wound healing using differential equations. Students are paired with faculty members whose research interests align with their own, so that they can gain experience in their desired field.  

“They would tailor some kind of learning path specifically for you. This individual approach to each student was very helpful, especially since I was going part-time, so my time was very limited,” Lazaryan said.  

When the program first began, it made a concerted effort to accommodate the needs of part-time students in order to build their student base and attract people to the program who already held jobs in the industry, but wanted to advance their positions. Lazaryan worked at the Richmond Fed part-time while pursuing her degree, while Marcella Torres had two children and founded a personal training business at the same time she earned her doctorate degree. Both agree that the flexibility and supportive environment of the program helps students complete their degrees in a timely manner.  

“Everything from understanding that I need to go slowly for a couple years, to giving me incompletes a couple of times because I actually gave birth in the middle of the semester, to Dr. Reynolds letting me use her office to pump breast milk. All these things that can be barriers and huge annoyances to women returning to work; it’s been no problem for me,” said Torres.  

As the program has grown over the years, it made an effort to create a community presence on campus. Every Friday afternoon, students and faculty alike meet in Harris Hall for “Math Tea”, an informal cross-disciplinary gathering that brings together the statisticians, the mathematicians, and the operations research people to talk about areas where their work interfaces.  

The different disciplines also have an opportunity to collaborate and hear about each other’s work at the four weekly seminars organized by the two departments. These seminars, each dedicated to a different discipline related to the program, gives students and faculty the opportunity to be exposed to research outside VCU, and to present their research and get feedback from their peers.  

“You were given a lot of resources and help, and all the encouragement in the world to succeed. The collaboration and encouragement I got from the faculty had a lot to do with me finishing everything on time,” Lazaryan said.  

To learn more about the Systems Modeling and Analysis program at VCU, visit sysm.vcu.edu.

Written by Megan Schiffres