CDR Meghan Steinhaus: Military Excellence and Mathematical Creativity
by Arielle Frommer (Marine Science Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut)
Interviewee: Meghan Steinhaus (United States Coast Guard Academy)
After a busy week of teaching machine learning algorithms and advising cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Commander Meghan Steinhaus unwinds with a yoga session. She describes it as “meditation in motion,” a pursuit that allows her to exercise her body whilst giving her time to contemplate. This theme of balance, of freedom in rules and creativity in structure, embodies CDR Steinhaus’s life and career.
CDR Meghan Steinhaus began her career as a cadet attending the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. While Steinhaus initially studied civil engineering, she quickly found that she had no interest in building. Instead, it was the heavy math that captivated her, and she went on to pursue her degree in Operations Research. “I couldn’t think of a better major for myself,” Steinhaus says. Applying mathematical techniques to real-world situations was a discipline that she was deeply passionate about.
After graduating from the Coast Guard Academy, CDR Steinhaus served her first tour on the CGC DAUNTLESS in Galveston, Texas, working in drug interdiction and migrant operations, where she had her first taste of the Coast Guard’s humanitarian work. Ever since then, she has been with the Academy, eventually becoming a Commander. After two years of working on data analytics projects for Coast Guard missions in Research and Development, Steinhaus applied for the position of Professor in Mathematics, and she has been teaching ever since.
Dr. Steinhaus feels very fortunate to have this position, especially since a professorship was not a lifelong goal of hers. Steinhaus remarks that she “didn’t grow up thinking I would be a professor of anything.” But she has always been drawn to the idea of teaching, and her position now is the result of an excellent opportunity that was presented to her in the Coast Guard.
Steinhaus also obtained a PhD in Industrial Engineering at the University of Rhode Island in 2015. Her research, funded by the Coast Guard, studied the vehicle routing problem, which is a combinatorial optimization problem that she solved by “finding the best algorithm out of a set of algorithms.” Dr. Steinhaus is passionate about all sorts of routing. “Everything in efficiency matters these days,” she told me.
Steinhaus is most interested in the application of math, and her favorite course to teach is machine learning. She explained to me that once you lay down a solid foundation in machine learning, growth and creativity abounds. “There is structure and organization and probably a better and a worse way, but when it comes down to it, there is creativity in making things happen,” Steinhaus explains.
And CDR Steinhaus is currently an active-duty member of the military and a part of the greater Coast Guard family. Her sense of service to the Coast Guard has inspired her to take on many analytics projects in and out of the Coast Guard. Currently, Steinhaus is leading a pro bono project for the Boston public school system where she applies mathematical modeling and optimization to optimize assignment of speech language pathologists to students with need in that area.
When I asked Dr. Steinhaus what motivates her, she explained that she is inspired by finding ways to use her skills to help people, even beyond the Coast Guard. Thinking about what she can do to help people—through a business, nonprofit, or other organization—drives her to achieve more. And in 2019, it inspired her to apply for Department Head of Mathematics.
CDR Steinhaus felt compelled to apply for the position through her sense of duty towards the Coast Guard Academy. But she also loves the Mathematics Department. Dr. Steinhaus explained that she hopes to incorporate machine learning and different progressive data analytic techniques in the curriculum. In her first year as Department Head, Steinhaus considers her biggest challenge, besides COVID-19, to be “the diversity in what mathematics means to so many different people, and trying to harness that so that everybody is under a shared vision of where we want to be in the future.”
Another challenge Dr. Steinhaus has encountered is the Coast Guard Academy’s paradoxical nature: the hierarchical structure of a military academy and the traditional freedom of an institute of higher learning. “That is the push and pull in the Math Department,” she says. The Mathematics Department has their own identity with their own Operations Research major, Steinhaus asserts, but it is also a service department to all of the other majors on campus. “There’s a structured way we do things…we have to meet the needs of everybody else,” Steinhaus explains. “But if we focus too much on that, is that a consequence to our major?” It’s a fine balance, she adds.
The Operations Research major at the Coast Guard Academy is only 20 years old, and “on the cusp of really exciting things,” according to Steinhaus, “with a lot of brilliant and creative people within our department.” She hopes to find a way to find a little more time to meet all the needs as a service department but also grow themselves in their major.
Throughout CDR Steinhaus’s engaged and passionate tenure at the Coast Guard, she has consistently worked to find the perfect state of mathematical and literal equilibrium. During the aforementioned yoga sessions, Steinhaus says she often reflects on her career, balancing her passion for research and sense of service, the hierarchy of the Coast Guard and the freedom in her field, the structure and ingenuity of applied math, and the identity and collective of the Department she heads.
Her advice to me, a high school senior considering mathematics, was: “Whenever you can find something you enjoy doing, you’re probably going to be a little happier in life.” Dr. Steinhaus has clearly found that niche for herself at the Coast Guard Academy, where her sense of duty, passion for mathematics, and commitment to service encompass the honorable ideals of the military and creativity of the mathematical sciences.