2023 Student Essay Contest: 6-8 Honorable Mention

“I Use Math to Catch Bad Guys”

by: Anna McCracken (Walnut Springs Middle School)

Interviewee: Amanda Kaye McCracken (PNC Bank)

“I use math to catch bad guys” is the simple description Dr. Amanda McCracken gives of her job at PNC Bank. Though her job title, Quantitative Analytics & Model Development Senior Group Manager, sounds much more complicated, this succinct summary is pretty accurate. Dr. McCracken leads a team of around 30 data scientists who build models using a variety of standard statistical techniques–such as regression, cluster analysis, and principal component analysis–and machine learning techniques–such as gradient boosted trees, random forests, and neural networks. The models process a variety of financial transactions and identify patterns that suggest a customer is engaged in criminal activity. Some types of criminal activity that her team identifies are drug trafficking, human trafficking, and even terrorist financing. Their models are one component of the bank’s complex anti-money laundering controls.

Though Dr. McCracken has always enjoyed mathematics, her path to a Ph.D. in statistics and leadership of a large data science group began differently than one might expect. She grew up in rural Alabama and attended underfunded, underperforming public schools from Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade. She found her math classes to be more fun than most other subjects, but she did not have much opportunity to pursue it in depth or breadth beyond the typical grade-level curriculum. Her school did not have a math team or access to math competitions, and the students did not even have the ability to take Algebra in middle school or Calculus in high school.

Despite the complete lack of mathematical enrichment options, Dr. McCracken was highly motivated to find and pursue the few opportunities that did exist. She had friends in a nearby city who were a year or two ahead in math, a fact that made her feel a bit inferior. She was determined to find a way to catch up with them! In 10th grade, she convinced her school to allow her to take Algebra and Geometry concurrently. Then, she worked with her school to set up concurrent enrollment with the local community college so that she could take some college-level math. Unfortunately, though, the college did not offer Calculus at a time that fit her school schedule, so she had to settle for Trigonometry and Statistics courses instead.

When she graduated and went to college, Dr. McCracken continued to feel very self-conscious about her education. In her senior year, her high school was on the verge of being taken over by the state government due to its poor academic performance, a fact that fueled the Imposter Syndrome she experienced. Despite her excellent test scores, full scholarship, and admission to the university’s most selective honors program, she had little faith that her schooling had prepared her for success at a major university.

Nevertheless, she was eager to finally take Calculus as it was a course she had looked forward to for several years. She excitedly walked into the class and found a seat in the front row and began taking copious notes as the professor discussed the properties of functions. But her positive mood quickly faded when the professor looked directly at her and said, “If you need to take notes on this, you don’t belong in this class!” Taking his words to heart, she immediately dropped the class, declared a major in German Language & Literature, and did not take any more math courses during her freshman year.

Despite this setback, Dr. McCracken’s break from math only reinforced how much she missed it. During the next summer, she decided to try taking Calculus at her hometown community college, figuring that the starting expectations there might be lower. The class went well, and she loved it so much that she decided to proceed with Calculus II when she returned to the university for her sophomore year–even though most of her mathematically-minded peers had completed Calculus II or even Calculus III as freshmen.

In Calculus II, Dr. McCracken earned her professor’s praise as a “brilliant math student” and made the only A+ in her entire class (even though he was the same professor she had had for her one-day Calculus I experience!). Though she still felt that a career in mathematics was out of reach, she made a decision to keep taking math classes. “I decided that I would keep taking these classes until I made something below an A,” Dr. McCracken explained. “But it never happened, so eventually, I earned a bachelor’s degree in math and a doctorate in statistics. And along the way, I got married and had a beautiful daughter.”

Throughout high school and college, Dr. McCracken had assumed that her major would have little relevance to her eventual career. She planned to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. She needed a bachelor’s degree to apply to law school, but the major itself was essentially irrelevant to the admissions process. A math major was as good as any other major for that purpose.

But, as she began to finish working on her dissertation, she no longer considered three years of law school to be an attractive option. She was 28, married, mother to a rambunctious toddler, and very ready to be a “real” adult instead of a student. Though Dr. McCracken had never previously given much thought to the options available to a freshly-minted statistics Ph.D., she visited the career center and began to search for opportunities. The opportunity that found her was a statistician role at the nation’s largest bank, with a salary that greatly exceeded her expectations. She accepted it without hesitation and quickly relocated her family to Central Ohio. She soon became involved in many types of modeling at the bank, in areas ranging from marketing to customer experience to economic capital to financial crimes.

Though all of her projects were enjoyable, the social impact of anti-money laundering work made it especially appealing to her. Eventually, Dr. McCracken decided to seek a position leading a group that specialized in this area. Five years in, she cannot imagine a better role.