Question: What do you like most about mathematics?

Answer: I love that mathematics can address problems in a variety of fields and applications. I have always been someone with interests in a variety of areas, and math allows me to apply my skills to many different kinds of problems. Over the past five years, using my background in math, I’ve been able to do research on prescription drug abuse, nowcasting influenza with internet data, algorithmic development for reconstructing large data sets, hydrocode verification and validation, and impact cratering and solid mechanics on asteroid 16 Psyche. Being able to apply my skills to such a diverse range of problems is by far my favorite thing about math.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Without a doubt, that would be my adviser, Stephen Wirkus. He talked me off the “math ledge” every semester, and that gave me the strength and courage to keep going. He taught me that graduate school is not just about being smart and doing well in courses. Perseverance is one of the biggest keys to success in graduate study.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in graduate school?

A: I would tell graduate students that everything they are feeling is normal. It is normal to feel stupid and to feel like an imposter sometimes. It is also normal to feel confident and able sometimes. It is normal to feel all of these things multiple times per day. Those in charge of admission to the program know what it takes to succeed, and they saw that potential in the applications of the students they chose to admit. It is important to focus on the end goal — the degree — when the current situation seems impossible or hopeless. Also, build your network. It will serve you well as you start and build a career.

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

A: This is a toss-up between the patio outside Noble Library, where I would often get coffee and catch up with friends, and PEBW 240, the dance studio where I took contemporary ballet and postmodern contemporary to maintain a healthy work/life balance.

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

A: I haven’t had a lot of spare time in graduate school, but when I do find myself with extra time (and I don’t need a nap), I like trivia, karaoke, cooking, dancing, choreographing, reading, going to movies and self-care activities like pedicures, massages and facials.

Q: What do you think is most misunderstood about math by the general public?

A: I think this is two-fold: 1) that mathematics is not useful in everyday life, and 2) that mathematicians are little more than human calculators. I often hear people say they never use math since leaving school, but that is simply not true. Not all math is arithmetic, and this is a common misconception. Along these lines, it’s also common for people to ask how many digits of π I know, or something along those lines. I think this stems from the idea that mathematics = arithmetic.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I plan to continue my work at Los Alamos National Laboratory by staying on as a postdoctoral researcher in computational planetary science, as well as other applications.

Q: Why were you originally interested in Los Alamos National Laboratory?

A: Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is a place of cutting-edge research. The work done at LANL has quite literally changed the world, and we have not seen war on a global scale since World War II. World-class scientists devote their careers to protecting not only our nation's citizens but people all over the world, and this often comes at a professional cost that hinders their publication rates and job prospects outside of the laboratory. I find that to be incredibly noble.

Q: Why do you want to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory?

A: I want to work at LANL because it has the interdisciplinary collaborative atmosphere of a university coupled with the overarching mission of national security. This gives the work we do at the laboratory a higher purpose, and it feels good to be a part of that. We have tools and resources here that I would not have access to elsewhere. Our computational resources alone are some of the best on the planet, and having access to those resources really broadens the scope of the work I can do. Since I first came to LANL as a student fellowship guest in 2015, I have worked on projects in computational physics, planetary science, materials science, data science, mathematical biology and computer science. I have been able to make meaningful contributions in a variety of research areas, and LANL provides me with the right environment to explore my many research interests.

Rhonda Olson

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