Narayan Bhamidipati works in a recently started division of Yahoo! Labs in Bangalore. His work is called computational advertising — figuring out the best advertisement to present to every Yahoo user. And how do they find out what might interest one among 600 million faceless users? Through mathematical modelling, a method of simulating real-life situations with mathematical equations.
Our goal is to find the ad you are most likely to click on, says Bhamidipati, a Phd in data mining (knowledge discovery in databases).
An alumnus of the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta, 33-year-old Bhamidipati enjoys his work as it helps him make a tiny impact on the lives of Internet users.
In the past, the opportunities for a maths student were not great. I might have become a teacher, impacting the lives of a few students or if I was lucky I would have made a breakthrough in maths research. But my work here at Yahoo will have an impact on many more lives since the reach of the Internet is so wide, he says.
It is not only search engines like Google, Yahoo! and the information technology industry that has turned to maths to provide cutting-edge service. Mathematics is also used to break down voluminous data and images generated in fields ranging from retail to health. Traditional maths theories, such as coding, are deployed by telecom companies to maximise the number of signals in a small bandwidth, while the traditional number theory is used to protect financial transactions using credit cards.
This wide application of maths has led to a dramatic change in the job scene for students of the subject. In the past, the career path of maths graduates was clearly chalked out. They either joined hallowed research institutions such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, or the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Calcutta, or they taught at one of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs).
In the last 10 years, the demand for mathematics students has risen sharply in industries such as software, biotechnology, financial services and banking, says Rajeeva Karandikar, director of the Chennai Mathematical Institute (CMI) in Chennai. Logical thinking maths doctorates are also being snapped up by healthcare manufacturing companies, research labs of multinationals, IT companies, government policy making departments, analytic firms and insurance companies. This is the golden age for mathematics, adds Karandikar.
The demand for applied maths students is such that CMI has started a new MSc programme in the application of math, which combines finance, computing and economics.
A combination of computer science, statistics and maths seems the best bet in todays job market. Ask Mousam Dutta. The senior software specialist in a business analysis software company in Pune earns more than Rs 12 lakh a year. Dutta has an MSc in statistics and an MTech in data processing and computer science from IIT, Kharagpur. My work is to develop modules or computation software to help statistical analysis of data. Be it retail, insurance or banking companies, they want to interpret data to offer better services and products. There are plenty of vacancies in this field today as a big gap exists between the demand for and supply of qualified manpower, says Dutta.
Professor Madhavan Mukund, dean of studies, CMI, believes that companies in our market-driven economy are eager to provide the most competitive services and products to customers. This is driving the need for analysis, he reasons.
A telecom company might want to work on their data on missed calls to figure out how they can start charging for missed calls, explains Madhavan. Or airline occupancy on a particular sector needs to be examined mathematically to make a business decision to shelve or add more flights in that sector.
Not only are there firms, such as McKinsey, Fractal Analysis and GE Capital, that provide analytical services to client businesses, many companies too have opened in-house divisions to analyse data. Analytic companies are the largest recruiters of mathematicians today, says Karandikar. Analytics is the current buzzword in the market, he asserts.
Analytic jobs are also being outsourced to India by Americans and Europeans, points out Dutta.
The doors to the world of finance also opened for maths students after Black Scholes and Martens pioneering explicit formulas on derivative products like pricing and hedging in the 1980s. Says Professor Mrinal Ghosh, department of maths, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, This resulted in a massive demand from finance companies for maths students and many universities started mathematical finance courses. The ICICI group, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are some of the big recruiters in this field.
That is why CMI has injected a strong input of computer science in the maths graduation programme says Vikraman Balaji of the institute. In the past two years, CMI has also started a masters programme in financial mathematics, he adds.
Biology and mathematics used to be considered opposite ends of a pole but now they are the best of friends. Uma Ranjan, Bangalore-based lead engineer at Phillips India, has done her Phd in the application of maths in image processing. Her work is to simplify the data on medical imaging to help doctors process the information better. She does this by applying heavy maths to visualise the image better or by highlighting specific features. There were always opportunities for maths students in manufacturing research. Today, new areas are emerging like the use of queueing theory to monitor network traffic, says Ranjan who believes her specialistion, image analysis (which requires the skills of a mathematician more than that of an engineer), has caught on in a big way.
G. Rangarajan is the coordinator of the Math Bio centre at the department of mathematics in the IISc. His current project involves analysing brain signals or EEG patterns to predict their next move.
This kind of information can help paralysed patients to move a robotic arm. This is just a small drop in the ocean of math application in biology. Mathematical applications are weaving their way into the specialised discipline of biology as they are useful to unravel the mysteries of proteins complex folds or to handle and analyse the voluminous data on DNA structure or to study molecular structures to design better drugs.
Maths is also being used to study the most happening issue of our times — genetics. Says Saurabh Ghosh, associate professor in the Human Genetics Unit at the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta, Statistics helps in dealing with the huge amount of genetic data we work with.
Statistics and probability theories are deployed to analyse genetic data, making it easier for scientists to solve problems such as finding the genes for different diseases or narrowing down the region where the relevant genes are located.
Balaji of CMI has, however, a word of caution. Bankers and government institutions should use mathematical models or formulae with common sense because these might not always work and could lead to another financial crisis, he warns. What looks good on paper might not always work in real life.
■ Chennai Mathematical Institute, Chennai:
BSc in computer maths and a new MSc programme in the application of maths, which has a combination of finance, computing and economics.
■ Center for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad:
The pick for those interested in computational biology research
■ The Institute of Financial Management and Research, Chennai
IFMR offers mathematical finance courses
■ Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai:
Best known for pure maths research, especially in number theory and algebraic geometry
■ Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore:
Focus on pure and applied maths. Holds workshops under its Institute Mathematical Initiative aimed at developing awareness of maths disciplines. The theme this year is mathematical biology
■ Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur:
Students of its five-year integrated MSc in maths and computation are in great demand
■ Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta
Famous for world class research in probability and statistics. The masters in quantitative economics course, especially, is a unique programme in which students are trained extremely well in the analysis of sophisticated financial data. A strong bio maths division also exists at the institute
■ Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai:
Has a graduate research programme for students interested in fundamental math research
Salary depends on the sector and the designation
Salary: Rs 40,000-Rs 45,000 a month
► Assistant professor
Salary: Rs 70,000 a month
► Senior software specialist (analytics)
Salary: Rs 1 lakh a month
► Financial analyst (with a statistics background)
Salary: Around 2 lakh a month