ASU grad: Mathematics is 'something I am meant to do'

Tin Phan to be awarded Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean's Medal


May 9, 2016

Editor's note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2016 commencement. See the rest here.

Tin Phan, a dual major in mathematics and physics, will be receiving the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Medal for the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences at commencement ceremonies this spring. Tin Phan Download Full Image

Originally from Quy Nhon, Vietnam, Phan did not consider mathematics as a career path early on.

“Aiming to be a mathematician is unthinkable for a vast majority of Vietnamese,” he said. “In my community, being either a doctor or lawyer was the only way for a person to be considered successful. So it was natural that although I have always been good at math, I never entertained the idea that I would spend my life learning it.”

Phan had loved the subject of mathematics since his childhood, but it was not until college that he realized that doing mathematics “releases me from being worried about my own problems,” he explained. “It is something I am meant to do, so I embrace it.”

Getting involved in the Mentoring through Critical Transition Points (MCTP) initiative introduced Phan to conducting research as an undergraduate. He chose to focus on mathematical biology because of his love for nature and his ability to recognize patterns and connect ideas between different fields.

Phan met professor Yang Kuang during his MAT 475 Differential Equations class in his junior year. He considers Kuang to be his mentor and his greatest inspiration.

“Aside from the mathematical and biological knowledge, he also taught me many things that cannot be learned in a traditional classroom. He is definitely the main reason why I am here today,” Phan said.

After graduation, Phan plans to continue improving his mathematics skills by enrolling in the doctoral program in applied mathematics at ASU.

Tin Phan

Tin Phan (right) chats with professor Eric Kostelich and other mathematics majors at the annual Jonathan D. and Helen Wexler Mathematical Sciences Senior Dinner.

Phan answered some questions about his experience at ASU.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: Aiming to be a mathematician is unthinkable for a vast majority of Vietnamese. In my community, being either a doctor or lawyer is the only way for a person to be considered successful. So it is natural that although I have always been good at math, I never entertained the idea that I would spend my life learning it.

But mathematics finds a way to grow in me and after my long adventure to many other fields, I saw the interconnected structure of knowledge in a deeper way than simply hearing someone say it. This network is like a puzzle and I came to the conclusion that mathematics is the key to connect all the pieces. I love the impossible, so I chose math.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Till this day, every day is a journey to a foreign land for me. In a world where winning and losing is separated by a blink of an eye, I tend to stretch my life slowly. As a result, I observe everything that happens around me and form my theory about them. There are many things that have surprised and helped me gain new perspectives while staying at such a diverse school like ASU. But the one thing that I treasure most is the realization that there are many people here at ASU who would enjoy the company of my strange humor and awkward self.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: For most of high school, I had an unimaginably difficult time communicating with anyone. By the way, that is an understatement. Thus I wanted to choose somewhere close to home so that I could reach out to others in time of difficulty.

Since I lived next to the ocean (in Vietnam) for the most of my life, the temperature in my hometown never got anywhere close to 30 degree Fahrenheit. The winter here (in Arizona) felt so cold that I had to wear multiple sweaters and pants to go to school in February! So while choosing my college, ASU was the obvious choice for those reasons.

Now that my English is better and I can take on the weather, if I could go back in time, I would still choose ASU. It is such a great school in so many ways.

Q: Why did you decide to major in mathematics?

A: I find mathematics beautiful and powerful. I have loved the subject since my childhood, but not until college, when I realized doing mathematics releases me from being worried about my own problems. It is something that I am meant to do, so I embrace it.

Q: What do you like most about mathematics?

A: Everything, I do mean I love everything about mathematics, and I appreciate all the great mathematicians who have contributed so much to the fields. On my part, I chose to focus on mathematical biology because of my love for nature and my ability to recognize pattern and connect ideas between different fields.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time, for fun?

A: Aside from constantly running around helping others with their homework and finding resources on campus, I play chess, Go, and read comic books. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school? 

A: I know what I am going to say is itself a contradiction, but this advice was given to me by people whom I have great respect for: “Do not listen to anyone.” More precisely, it means one should not take advice blindly, find his/her own path and walk on that path diligently. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I basically lived in Hayden my freshman and sophomore years. Then I relocated to the PSF tutoring room during my junior year. Now, I more or less live in Wexler Hall. So statistically, my favorite spot is the PSF tutoring room. But suppose this is an exponential random variable, then it is memoryless, which means Wexler Hall is my favorite spot. (I just couldn’t help this.) 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: In the near future, I will be helping out with the MCTP program after graduation. Then I will attend a conference in mathematical modeling at Harvard. Afterward, I will be taking residence in the MTBI for two months and spend the last week of summer doing TA training.

I will then continue improving my mathematics skills by enrolling in the PhD program in applied mathematics at ASU. Meanwhile, I will be constantly involved with mentoring and helping other students just like everything I have been doing up to now. And of course, I will also be doing research on diseases through collaboration with other amazing researchers around the world.

I hope to work in something related to public health, math bio research and education after obtaining the necessary skills. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: To solve any actual problem on our planet, $40 million is likely to be insufficient. Instead, I will create an organization that will simultaneously invest the money and fund the futures of promising people. This is a naïve and simple plan, but suppose it works. Then eventually, there will be enough resources to solve any problem on our planet. 

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences

480-727-2468

Finding his dream job

Veteran and ASU grad Michael Sprague is Google bound


May 9, 2016

Editor’s note:  This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2016 commencement. See the rest here.

The U.S. Air Force gave Arizona State University graduating student Michael Sprague the opportunity to restart his life after family commitments placed it on hold temporarily and now, after his ASU journey, he’s heading toward an exciting new venture. Former Air Force Senior Airman Michael Sprague is a computer science major and is heading to Silicon Valley to work for Google. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now Download Full Image

Through his ambition, experience, love of computer programming and the doors ASU opened, Sprague will now work as a software engineer for one of the most sought-after companies in the U.S. — Google. The 57,000-plus-employee technology giant based out of the San Jose suburb of Mountain View, California, is consistently voted in the top three best companies to work for in the nation. 

Sprague — a computer science major — did not bump into Google by accident or coincidence. It was through an internship advertised by one of his ASU professors that he got his foot in the Google door. Twice.   

“I found out about the internship through a post Dr. (Mutsumi) Nakamura made on Blackboard during her class,” said Sprague, who completed two Google internships. “I was in the market for an internship at the time and figured why not shoot for the moon. It panned out pretty well.”

The former Air Force technical application specialist, who served in a military operations center responsible for monitoring international nuclear treaty activities, heads to California with his wife immediately following the ASU Veterans Honor Stole Ceremony to start his new career. 

Sprague's military experience has served him well. During his time at ASU he served as the vice president of the Software Developers Association for two years and is credited as one of its founding members. His leadership contributed to giving SoDA direction, leading to attention from large corporations looking for recruits.  

“We managed to offer a good platform and jumping point for our members to speak to, and eventually get internships and jobs with major engineering companies,” he said.

Michael Sprague stands between ASU Alumni Association president Christine Wilkinson and retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Vern Findley at the Veterans Honor Stole Ceremony in Old Main on Saturday, May 7. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Sprague provides some perspectives, insights and tips for future and current students.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I was still in the Air Force when this happened. We were offered an “Advanced Unix Certification” training course and I jumped on the opportunity. They sent us to another state, and we spent a little over a month in this training. During this time, we were asked to write up a simple piece of software, given complete autonomy as to how it’s implemented, then given a week to get it done. This was the first time I was “paid” to be a software engineer. It was also the first time I couldn’t wait to get to work, begged to stay late and spent time at home planning what I was going to do the next day. This was very eye-opening for me. 

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Computer Science Engineering 340 class. Every CS student’s bane, coding assignments that make your previous work look like a joke. Up until then, the way I coded was by sitting in front of a computer, looking at some requirements and start slapping away at my keyboard. After our first big project was due and my first real failure in school, I had to stop. That way no longer works. Now, when I start to code, I sit and think. I think of every possible thing I can think of that will come up with this project. I plan, I scheme, I mentally develop until finally I decide on what I want. Only then will I start coding.

That big failure I had in CSE340 was an eye-opener for me and has completely changed the way I approach writing code. I found the other projects in that class, future classes projects and even my second internship at Google, were significantly easier since I adopted that method.

That class was brutal, but it has made me a better coder.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I grew up in Lake Havasu, and it made sense to go here. The fact that it was military-friendly was a big perk, though. The Pat Tillman Veterans Center is incredible, and every time I work with them solutions just happen.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Get into an internship as soon as you can, I can’t stress this enough. I am personally friends with coders who put me to shame that Google chose to not hire. I managed to get into the position by playing it smart and starting with internships. Two internships at Google mean an over six-month-long interview where I had all the time in the world to show them my best side.

On top of that, the other students I’ve worked with almost always get better jobs at a higher pay if they have an internship or two under their belt. Even if you don’t end up in the same company, just showing the work you have already done makes it easier to get into a better job and makes you stand out from other graduates.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I live pretty far off campus, so I tend to not spend much off time there anymore. But when I lived closer and wasn’t married, I would spend a lot of time in the Engineering Center (ECG). It’s a nice quiet place to study.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Heading on to California! I’ll be starting work almost immediately and moving even earlier. School was fun and all, but I can’t wait to start getting to work on my first project at Google. I can’t wait to get back to that feeling I first had when I was a paid software engineer.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Education, totally. I’m a big proponent of bringing technology into our schools. A bunch of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are trying new and revolutionary ways of teaching students. I could go on for days about this, but it boils down to there being some real potential in teaching classrooms differently in both quality of education and cost of education, but they need a ton of research before any parent would allow their student to take it. Nobody wants an experimental education. … If I had the opportunity, I would work with them in bringing these changes into our public schools and colleges. ASU has taken good first steps in their online education system, but I don’t think it’s far enough. I think it’s time classrooms start treating technology like the tool it is.

Jerry Gonzalez

Media Relations Officer, Media Relations and Strategic Communications