Student Essay Contest

Delving Into Uncertainty Analysis: A Biography of Dr. Laura P. Swiler

2014 AWM Essay Contest: High School Honorable Mention

By: Simin Liu, Albuquerque Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Uncertainty is an inescapable part of our lives, a fact which is appalling to the overbearing perfectionist in all of us. Dr. Laura P. Swiler has dedicated her life’s research to the study of uncertainty analysis and to developing methods to treat uncertainty in computational models. Uncertainty analysis has the ability to provide us persuasive data that informs our choices and allows us to make decisions in a more rigorous manner. Swiler’s work has practical applications to a wide range of medical, military, manufacturing and public policy decisions. For example, her research supports risk studies such as the analysis of core meltdowns at nuclear reactors. We can all derive a little peace of mind from Swiler’s research knowing that we can combat all the terrifying uncertainty in the world and make well-informed decisions through uncertainty analysis.
Born in Buffalo, New York, Dr. Laura Painton Swiler was the oldest of four children. Her parents were influential to her later success. Her mother, a history teacher, nurtured her love of reading and her voracious appetite for knowledge from an early age: her fondest childhood memories are of afternoons spent with her mother scouring the shelves of the public library. Her father, a vascular surgeon, set high standards for his children and always expected them to accomplish everything to the best of their abilities. “My father’s favorite saying was ‘Being smart and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee’”, Swiler recalled with a chuckle. “Basically, he tried to impress upon us the idea that success is the combined product of intelligence, hard work and persistence. Possessing solely intelligence is no guarantee of success.”
Swiler took her father’s words to heart and they served her well: her combined work ethic and determination to succeed allowed her to rank number one in her high school junior class at Williamsville East High School. She was later accepted to Yale University, where her mathematics and physics classes reaffirmed her passion for math and cemented her conviction to pursue it as a career. She also remained an avid reader during her time at Yale and graduated only two English courses short of obtaining a dual degree in Applied Mathematics and English. Though she was discouraged by the paucity of fellow female students in her advanced math and science classes, she refused to allow it to intimidate her. During her senior year at Yale, Swiler was offered a job by Bell Labs (then one of the premier research institutions in the country) that she simply could not refuse. At Bell Labs, she was among a legion of young interns laboring on a large-scale project dubbed ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) that aimed to create lines that could host both voice and data and that Bell Labs hoped to implement across the country by the mid-1990’s. Although they did not succeed in doing so, Swiler considers it to be the official starting point of her career and professes that she feels grateful to have taken part in the technology revolution of the 1990’s.
While working at Bell Labs, Swiler completed a master’s degree at Stanford University in Operations Research, a field which involves using different methods of math modeling and advanced analytical methods to determine the maximum (of profit or yield) or minimum (of risk or cost). After contributing to the Operations Research division at Bell Labs, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. “I wanted to obtain a Ph.D. so I could be equipped to make the world a better place in whatever little way I could with my math models,” said Swiler. The decision was a pivotal moment in her career. In 1992, Swiler applied to the US Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship and received funding for a doctoral fellowship in Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Although her parents expressed concerns about the implication of leaving her secure job at Bell Labs, Swiler was convinced beyond a doubt that it was something that she wanted to pursue. “It was an unarguably unique opportunity. Obtaining a PhD is generally the only instance in your professional career that you have the chance to become an expert on a topic,” said Swiler. She did not come to regret her decision. “The process of obtaining a PhD was of inestimable worth because I was focusing like I had never focused before.”
Swiler then spent the summer of 1993 working at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, where she decided to stay. In 2006, she obtained a patent for “Method and Tool for Network Vulnerability Analysis”. This innovative approach involves attack graphs, which enable mathematicians to identify the ways in which hackers can attack a network given the particular vulnerabilities on machines and the hacker’s capability to exploit the vulnerabilities. Following Swiler’s pioneering work with attack graphs, the idea rapidly gained popularity in the computer science community. Her current research has been focused on uncertainty quantification of computational simulations. Simulation models (used to model situations like nuclear reactor performance, climate change, shock physics, heat transfer and many more) have specific parameters: one of Swiler’s jobs is to determine which parameters are most influential in governing certain responses. Swiler is also active in the academic community and has mentored many graduate and post-doctorate students. Being a mentor is important to Swiler because she feels grateful for the direction her mentors provided her and wishes to be able to provide that same guidance to other students. “I also learn from the students I am mentoring, often just as much as they learn from me,” said Swiler.
Swiler is as dedicated to her responsibilities as a wife and mother as she is to her commitment as a mathematician and mentor. For her, having a successful career while raising a family hasn’t been impossible, but has been hard work. In the face of the family/career juggling act, she has found it necessary to maintain a strict, structured schedule in order to be able to work full time and raise her two sons. Although she concedes that having children will inevitably affect a woman’s career, she strongly believes that every woman should be able to pursue a career without fear of discrimination for embracing motherhood. She recalls that in her mother’s generation, it was the tacit rule for women to relinquish their careers after giving birth to their first child. However, Swiler has served as a living testament to the ability of the modern day woman to be both focused in her career and engaged with her children, which is no small feat. Although some academic fields seem stacked against women because the childbearing years coincide with what are usually the years of peak productivity, Swiler has demonstrated that women do not have to choose between their family lives and their careers.
Swiler’s life story shows us that with perseverance and motivation, it is possible to transcend traditional gender stereotypes and have both a rewarding career and a fulfilling family life. It is apparent that Swiler has never allowed herself to be discouraged by the dearth of women in mathematics. Her profound appreciation of and delight in the power and elegance of mathematics has driven her to pursue her dream of effecting change through mathematics without regard to perceived gender limitations. Though she grapples with uncertainty on a daily basis, one thing there is no uncertainty about is Dr. Laura P. Swiler’s commitment to bettering the world by aiding us in making more informed and appropriate choices.
About the Student:
I am currently a junior at Albuquerque Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I am actively involved in school organizations and my community, including our school newspaper, tennis team, speech and debate team and community service club. I am genuinely fascinated and delighted by mathematics and have eagerly pursued it both through my academic coursework (I am taking AP Calculus BC) and through tutoring younger students in math. To me, math is a splendid way to exercise my problem solving skills (nothing really compares to the satisfaction of finally solving a difficult problem) and has helped me understand that there are usually several different approaches to solving the same problem. In my free time, I enjoy running, drawing and reading (especially National Geographic). I hope to have the opportunity to further pursue my passion for math and science through university and beyond.