Student Essay Contest

Math Magic. Outer Space, Virtual Space and Sun

2016 AWM Essay Contest: Middle School Level Honorable Mention

By: Addy Javetz New Exploration into Science, Technology and Math School (New York City, New York)

What do smart online advertisements and beautiful galaxies, far, far away, have in common? The answer: Mind boggling amounts of gigantic numbers. Simply think of the trillions of stars in billions of galaxies. Each one of those heavenly objects has a long list of unique characteristics that can be measured. Or, imagine a table with millions of rows and thousands of columns, containing data about billions of internet users, each with their own favorite websites, games and apps, millions of text messages and images from every day of the year, around the globe. So many large numbers can make one’s head spin. In fact, even the best mathematicians could never process such huge numbers using brain power alone, during a single lifetime.
This is why we need Sun. That is, Doctor Sun Mi Chung, a Principal Data Scientist at AOL and a former Research Fellow at NASA. She manages Big Data – data that is so BIG that in order to make sense and good use of it, it requires tens of very strong computers with terabytes of memory. However, even such computers cannot do anything without Sun’s algorithms. Made of sets of mathematical rules, the algorithms instruct computers to re-organize the vast numbers, and come up with big picture insights. For example, insights regarding the habits of internet users include predicting which product a particular user is more likely to buy, in what color and which location, and even in what weather. Then, advertisers can put the right ad in front of the right user, at the right time, for the right price. Similarly, algorithms enable astronomers to better understand remote clusters of galaxies. Processing infrared related Big Data, Sun found a galaxy that is a trillion times brighter than our sun(!), and calculated which galaxies have supermassive black holes in the center.
The computers do all the adding, subtracting and other routine calculations, while Sun focuses on constructing the mathematical formulae, which will instruct the computers how to approach the data. “That’s pretty cool, because all of the data we use for this algorithm is basically just a series of numbers. But, a good algorithm produces better predictions.”, says Sun, “It’s fun to figure out how to make the algorithms work in a more clever way.”
When Sun talks of the galaxies, she describes them as pieces of art. Sun Mi realized that she loves science in high school. She began taking extra science classes and narrowed down her passion for all sciences to astronomy, and then embarked on her journey into galaxy exploration.
Born in Korea, and a resident of New York City, Sun went to college at Wesleyan University and graduate school at the University of Florida. There, she graduated with a PhD in Astronomy, later becoming a postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State University. While she had women colleagues, she noticed that the vast majority of professors were male. (According to the the American Institute of Physics, the percentage of Astronomy faculty who were women was 19% in 2010, up from 14% in 2003.) Therefore, she attended a diversity-awareness club. “It was a positive experience to learn more about other people’s point of view.”, she says. “It would be great to see more female professors in the field.”
During Sun’s research in graduate school and at NASA, she studied a hundred galaxy clusters, each one containing hundreds to thousands of galaxies, and each galaxy containing billions of stars. Using large NASA telescopes and strong computers, she analyzed datasets from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), resulting in one of the first extragalactic papers to be published in an academic journal, using WISE data.
While Sun loved the time she spent at NASA, she continued on her journey, exploring other ways to put her math and science knowledge into practice. She joined a startup called Velos, that was acquired by AOL. There, Sun Mi sees the numbers and algorithms as tools to deliver business results. She must develop deep understanding of both advertisers’ needs and users’ habits, in order to match highly- relevant data to the right customers. “This is good for our business because our customers [the advertisers] want to understand how people use their phones and laptops, so we can show them advertisements that they are interested in, and even suggest websites and products they might like. Our algorithms can predict with over 90% precision whether two computers or phones are being used by the same person.” In this context, Sun Mi also explained what Machine Learning is, and how math is powering computers’ ability to continuously learn from the outputs of algorithms it already processed. She makes it sound easy.
Sun always smiles. It is apparent that she loves solving those math puzzles, that challenge her, and amaze her colleagues and customers, thus producing more business for her company. She translates complicated math equations for everybody, allowing all parties to enjoy the fruits of her work, i.e. insights into realms that would otherwise be hard to interpret. Her office has a foosball table, which she enjoys, a nap room and snack bars, although, it does not include a telescope, or a roof deck to gaze upon the stars. Nevertheless, with her brilliant mind and curiosity she continues to explore uncharted territories, in the Math Magic Realm she rules.
About the Student:
Addy Javetz is an 11-year-old, residing in New York City and attending the New Explorations into Science Technology and Math school. Math and science have always been her favorite subjects. In third grade, she won a first prize ribbon at the school’s science fair, for her project on electromagnetic fields. As Addy says, in her own words: “I see math everywhere I look, when I play piano I add the notes together and see patterns, when my brother plays soccer and delves on professional players’ statistics, when my dad works in finance and when my mom tells us about her product management work at AOL. My grandmother studied math at university, with a PhD from Harvard, and she is my role model, as well as my favorite person ever. Numbers are everywhere in this world. There is still much more space for learning, and I can’t wait to explore it.” Addy loves music and sings with the Met Opera Children’s Choir. She plays the piano, dances with the Paul Taylor Company, swims at NYU and enjoys drawing cute comic illustrations.