Alumni Stories

What are our graduates doing?

What does it take to be successful at job hunting and building a career in mathematical sciences? Find out from alumni who have stories to share and great career insights to offer.

Xiaoqi (Heidi) Cui 

PhD, Mathematical Sciences, 2010
Current job/field: Research Statistical Analyst
Employer: Abbott Laboratories


Born in Dandong, China, a small and beautiful city in Liaoning Province, Xiaoqi (Heidi) Cui says she is accustomed to cold weather. "Winters in Houghton were not a big shock to me," she says. "There is not as much snow in my hometown as there is in Houghton, though. I love how white and pure the snow in Houghton is."

Cui arrived in Houghton in 2004 to study statistics as a doctoral student, after completing her bachelor’s degree in applied math at Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China. Cui’s dissertation research focuses on developing efficient statistical and computational methods to identify gene-to-gene interactions that affect certain complex human diseases. Her research moves on to locate gene regulators that are critical in a biological process.

"The field I am most interested in is human health, and I work to apply my mathematical and statistical knowledge to help find critical factors that can affect complex human diseases," Cui explains. "My goal is for my research to contribute to the development of effective drugs to treat those diseases."

Cui has always been good at math and logic, and even as a child she earned several honors and awards in math competitions at school. While at Michigan Tech, she developed an interest in statistical genetics as a way to contribute to solving human health problems. "Whether working in academia or industry, I want to be able to use my mathematics and statistics knowledge to help people solve real-world problems," Cui emphasizes.

Cui strives to make a difference in the world. Since completing her doctoral work at Michigan Tech, Cui has been employed at Abbott Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company located north of Chicago. Her work in the Biostatistics and Data Management Department focuses on exploring new statistical methods to support Abbott’s pharmaceutical research and development.

"My graduate work at Michigan Tech has helped to build a strong foundation for my research and work," Cui says.

But research wasn’t the only thing that drew Cui to the University. "Michigan Tech’s math department provides graduate students with opportunities to teach, not as just a teaching assistant but as an instructor," she says. "This was an exciting experience for me as it helped to improve my confidence in my English communication."

Outside her professional and research life, Cui enjoys participating in aerobics and running, as well as cooking. Her family is a strong support to her as well, "My husband, my grandma, and my parents always give me boundless love and support. I owe them a lot."

"Whatever I’m doing, I believe, ‘Small changes make a big difference,’" Cui says. "This belief works well in both my research and in my everyday life."

Xiaoqi (Heidi) Cui

Xiaoqi (Heidi) Cui

PhD, Mathematical Sciences, 2010
Current job/field: Research Statistical Analyst
Employer: Abbott Laboratories

I am most interested in human health, and I work to apply my mathematical and statistical knowledge to help find critical factors that can affect complex human diseases.



Erik Westlund 

PhD, Mathematical Sciences, 2010
Current job: Assistant Professor
Employer: Kennesaw State University


“I once invented an elaborate machine within a four-foot cube, made out of wood, steel, and PVC piping,” Erik Westlund recalls. “The machine opened a factory-sealed carton of milk in the most deliberately complicated way possible, designed in the fashion of the ridiculously over-engineered devices designed by cartoonist Rube Goldberg in the early 1900s.”

It is this type of abstract thinking that led Westlund to his chosen field.

“I have always loved mathematics immensely,” he says. “I find unparalleled beauty in its structure and depth and stand in awe of its ubiquitous presence in our universe.”

It is this passion that perhaps contributes best to Westlund’s work, first as a PhD candidate at Michigan Tech, and now as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Marshfield/Wood County. Beginning in the summer of 2011, Westlund will be moving to Kennesaw State University near Atlanta, Georgia, where he will be employed as an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

Westlund’s dissertation research was in algebraic graph theory, working with a thirty-year-old conjecture on whether the edge sets of certain types of graphs whose structure is based on a finite algebraic group can be partitioned into large cycles. In short, he used a combination of programming, computational, and theoretical approaches to obtain partial results, resolving a number of long-standing and open mathematics cases.

“When I chose to come to Michigan Tech for my graduate work, I had applied all over the country,” he explains. “After visiting Tech at the invitation of Dr. Mark Gockenbach, I was really impressed and excited to come. The faculty and graduate students really seemed like my kind of people: extremely knowledgeable and very approachable.”

The opportunity to teach was, for Westlund, one that couldn’t be passed up. “After being offered a teaching assistantship, I was completely sold,” he says. “Plus, the UP is absolutely beautiful.”

Westlund plans to continue his career within the academic sector, working to gain a broad working knowledge of combinatorics, graph theory, and areas of abstract algebra. Opportunities to work with colleagues in mathematics and in other disciplines will contribute to his research and to the field. And research is only one part of the allure of academia: “I also very much enjoy teaching,” he says. “In my work as an academic, I hope to refine my techniques to become an even more effective and seasoned instructor.”

“Thus far, my most significant accomplishment would have to be committing to my research and finishing my PhD,” Westlund says. “But I also consider it a great accomplishment when I have students telling me that they learned a lot in my class and really enjoyed having me as an instructor.”

Beyond his professional life, Westlund enjoys drawing and sketching, collecting and listening to music, woodworking, and traveling.

“I also love to cook,” he adds.

Westlund is grateful for the people he got to know during his time at Tech. “Over the course of the six years I spent at Michigan Tech, I became close with people who opened up entirely new ways of thinking to me and helped me to learn an enormous amount about myself,” he says. “Some, undoubtedly, helped to make me a better scholar and mathematician, and others, I feel, helped to make me a better person in general.”

“For a long time, I measured success in the standard manner: secure job, number of papers published, respectable salary, nice home,” Westlund adds. “Now, I unquestionably measure success only in whether an individual is happy doing what they are doing.”

Erik Westlund

Erik Westlund

PhD, Mathematical Sciences, 2010
Current job: Assistant Professor
Employer: Kennesaw State University

Some [people] helped to make me a better scholar and mathematician, and others, I feel, helped to make me a better person in general.


[ read more ]

Rui (Sammi) Tang 

PhD, Mathematical Sciences, 2008
Current job/field: Biostatistician
Employer: Amgen

"I love number crunching," says Rui (Sammi) Tang. But not just any numbers. Tang is interested in statistical genetics, the subject of the dissertation she completed while earning a PhD in Mathematical Sciences. "Statistics helps me understand the world from a data analytics point of view," she says. "Michigan Tech has a great statistical genetics program and provides a great place to live."

Tang has embarked on a career at Amgen, a top biotech company headquartered in California, where she plans to "be a major contributor in the development of drugs for cancer patients." Five years from now, she hopes "to be a senior, experienced biostatistician in the biotech industry and develop novel methods for analyzing patient health data and designing efficient drug studies."

Tang’s research involved developing more efficient methods for investigating the relationship between human genes and diseases like diabetes. She studied with Shuanglin Zhang, who holds the Richard and Elizabeth Henes Professorship in Mathematical Sciences.

Originally from Chegdu, in China’s Sichuan Province,Tang says her family and friends have been important as she pursued her career. "My family was always supportive as I grew up," she says."When I was at Michigan Tech,I met lots of friends and great colleagues who I enjoyed being with and learned a great deal from."

She also found an outlet in sports while at Tech. "Basketball, badminton, hiking, and actually all kinds of sports games are interesting to me," she relates. That love of games and number crunching came in handy during her graduate school years, as well. "I won first place in the Michigan Tech poker tournament among about sixty students in 2008," she says. "It was my first poker tournament ever."

Rui (Sammi) Tang

Rui (Sammi) Tang

PhD, Mathematical Sciences, 2008
Current job/field: Biostatistician
Employer: Amgen

I hope to develop novel methods for analyzing patient health data and designing efficient drug studies.


 [ read more ]

Xuexia (Helen) Wang 

PhD, Mathematical Sciences, 2008
Current job/field: Assistant Professor
Employer: University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee



Xuexia (Helen) Wang is one of a growing number of PhD graduates from the Department of Mathematical Sciences, having found her way to Houghton from Heze, China.

“I was interested in the work being done by Professor [Shuanglin] Zhang, who is an excellent scholar,” she said. “I was also attracted to the reputation of Michigan Tech and its location in a beautiful part of the country.”

Wang earned two PhDs—one from China in econometrics and one from Michigan Tech focusing on statistics. “I have always been confident in mathematics and like the area of statistics specifically,” she said. “I learned a great deal about my discipline through the training I received and the research I conducted.”

For her dissertation, Wang investigated ways to develop new statistical methods for detecting the susceptibility locus—a point in the gene that is susceptible to mutation—of the human genome for a disease. She wants to use this experience, and her education, “to serve on the faculty of a university where I can continue my work in statistical genetics and develop useful methods in searching for disease-related loci, and also to be a good teacher for my students.” She was a postdoctoral researcher in the biomedical division of the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center.

Wang describes herself as an optimistic person. She carries that optimism into the classroom and research lab, and also when comparing her home country with her adopted land. “I believe that the economy of US and China will be better and offer fruitful opportunities for both countries to collaborate on projects designed to improve the conditions of people worldwide,” she said.

When not in the classroom or lab, she enjoys swimming and playing table tennis. She also reflected on one of the new icons of American culture. “I once tried to sell a piano on craigslist. That website is full of shysters!”

Xuexia (Helen) Wang

Xuexia (Helen) Wang

PhD, Mathematical Sciences, 2008
Current job/field: Assistant Professor
Employer: University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee

I want to continue my work in statistical genetics and develop useful methods in searching for disease-related loci.


[ read more ]

Rob Swiatek 

BS, Mathematics, 2005
Current job/field: Actuary
Employer: Presque Isle firm

Rob Swiatek took a roundabout path to a degree (in math, with a concentration in actuarial science) from Michigan Tech. He then took a roundabout path in his career, going from a company with more than 200 actuaries to a company with just two.

"Initially, I sought out Michigan Tech because I wanted to be an engineer, and I had heard of the quality of the engineering programs," he says. "Also, there was never a shortage of people out there who had a high opinion of Michigan Tech graduates."

From engineering, he migrated to finance and economics and seemed on a solid career path.

"I was close to finishing up my finance degree when I seriously began researching what kinds of jobs finance alumni usually take on," he recalls. "I began to realize that I was disinterested in the typical jobs that finance majors held. I eventually stumbled upon actuarial science and learned about actuaries and their role in the insurance marketplace. Ultimately, I chose to study math to better prepare me for this field."

After graduating in 2005, Swiatek joined Liberty Mutual in Wausau, Wisconsin, studying loss occurrence patterns for workers’ compensation and commercial auto policies. This work fed into the company’s planning and cash flow models. Two years later, he moved to the company’s headquarters in Boston, working as a claims actuary.

A year later, in 2008, he moved from bustling Boston to quiet Presque Isle, in far northeastern Maine, and from an actuarial group of 200 to two.

"I followed my wife when she accepted a job as a district conservationist for the USDA-NRCS [the Department of Agriculture’s National Resource Conservation Service.] Being an actuary in a small firm gives me the opportunity to wear many hats. Primarily, I share responsibility with the other company actuary in determining personal and commercial line insurance rates and reserves."

Swiatek says his Michigan Tech education has served him well.

"I recall maintaining a constant balance between being gainfully employed, keeping up with group projects, completing homework assignments, and making sure my fiancée didn’t run off with one of those hip STC [scientific and technical communication] majors," he says. "Honestly, entering the ‘real world’ was sort of a joke by comparison. In the real world, you’re allowed to stop thinking about work after 5 p.m. and on the weekends.

"I also remember that we had snow every once in awhile."

Rob Swiatek

Rob Swiatek

BS, Mathematics, 2005
Current job/field: Actuary
Employer: Presque Isle firm

I share responsibility with the other company actuary in determining personal and commercial line insurance rates and reserves.


[ read more ]

Christine (Goering) Lally 

BS, Mathematical Sciences, 1999
Current job/field: Senior Business Planner
Employer: New York Power Authority

"I’ve always liked math," says Christine (Goering) Lally, "except for those timed multiplication tests in elementary school."

"One of my high school friends really hooked me when he showed me that you don’t just have to believe mathematical theorems, they can be proven," Lally says. "Deciding to major in math at college just seemed to be the obvious choice for me."

Lally chose to attend Michigan Tech for several reasons, not the least of which was the combination of the quality of the education and the natural beauty of the Keweenaw. As she puts it, "Where else can you see a bear cross the road on the way from the airport to the campus?"

Community involvement is also important to Lally, and the opportunities to get involved in the University community outside of her department were also a draw. "I played the clarinet in the Michigan Tech Pep Band and in a local band, went on an archaeological dig, and worked in the archaeology lab on campus," Lally says. When asked what advice she would give to students, she says, "Join the Pep Band! You’ll have fun and make some great friends." 

After completing her bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1999, Lally went on to earn a Master of Science in Mathematics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2000. Following completion of her master’s degree, Lally began working at the New York Independent System Operator, the administrator of New York’s wholesale electric markets.

"It was amazing to me to learn how much complexity is behind the electric outlets that I used to take for granted," Lally says. She then moved to the New York Power Authority, the state agency that, among many things, operates the hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls. Lally is currently employed as a senior business planner for the New York Power Authority, maintaining the company’s financial forecasting model and creating forecasts that are used by management to analyze business strategies.

"To some extent my job involves mathematical calculations," Lally says. "But the most important skill I developed is the ability to be logical and organized. Those traits are an asset in almost any career."

Lally lives with her husband, Adam, and their Scottish terrier, Maggie, in Cold Spring, New York. In addition to spending time outdoors, Lally enjoys scrapbooking and swimming. Lally was even able to combine her enjoyment of swimming with her interest in community involvement. "This past summer I swam across the Hudson River in support of the Hudson River Pool, a free public swimming area in the river," she says.

When asked about her goals, she says, "My goal is to continue learning and to always work in a job where I can make a positive impact."

Christine (Goering) Lally

Christine (Goering) Lally

BS, Mathematical Sciences, 1999
Current job/field: Senior Business Planner
Employer: New York Power Authority

The most important skill I developed is the ability to be logical and organized. Those traits are an asset in almost any career.


[ read more ]

Mandy Frantti 

BS, Mathematics, 1993
Current job/field: Teacher
Employer: Munising High School

Mandy Frantti has traveled the country and won national awards for teaching, but she keeps coming back to Munising, Michigan.

“I have completed sixteen years of teaching in the same classroom overlooking Munising Bay and the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore,” says the 1993 Tech graduate. “I’ve taught various mathematics classes, physics, applied physics, astronomy, and integrated science.”

While maintaining a full teaching schedule, she serves as head of the science department at Munising High and has created professional development programs for elementary school teachers. She also has been active nationally, including working as a NASA astrophysics educator ambassador. “[I have been] traveling the country doing workshops and presentations for educators and students sharing exciting new discoveries and developments in space as well as here on Earth,” she says. She has also received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Education.

The Laurium, Michigan, native knew she wanted to teach from the get-go. “I knew I definitely wanted to teach physics,” she says. “In physics, the applications and fun are obvious. In math, some teachers obscure the applications and fun by falling into a rut and presenting ideas as algorithms. I wanted to be one of the teachers who make math interesting.”

After earning a BS in Mathematics and a minor in physics, plus an education certification, from Tech, she did graduate work at Tech and Northern Michigan University.

“I had an absolutely fantastic education from Michigan Tech,” she says. She is particularly pleased with Tech’s approach to teacher education, requiring students to earn a degree in the field in which they will teach—not just an education degree. “I have worked with many teachers and found that one of the major weaknesses is not having a strong background in the subject area,” she says. “This is not true of Tech graduates. My degree allows me to approach teaching from a deeper level, even though it doesn’t mean that I’m teaching calculus to eighth graders. I also appreciate that Tech’s course requirements make for a well-rounded person and better problem solver.”

Frantti takes well-roundedness to heart.

“I love music, and I give piano lessons in the evenings,” she says. “I am an artist, doing watercolor and portrait drawing. I take joy in photography, sitting by Lake Superior, writing, reading, giving gifts, and travel. My sister and I have traveled to Europe, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and many places on this continent. These are some of the things that are near and dear to me.”

After a decade-and-a-half in the classroom, Frantti says she still comes back to the reason she went into teaching in the first place—working with young people. “Every year I have students who make it clear that I have influenced their lives for the better. The awards I’ve gotten as a result of a student nominating me as their ‘most influential educator’ have meant more than any award I’ve received from anywhere else. I absolutely love teaching, and I love my students.”

Mandy Frantti

Mandy Frantti

BS, Mathematics, 1993
Current job/field: Teacher
Employer: Munising High School

I have been traveling the country doing workshops and presentations for educators and students sharing exciting new discoveries and developments in space as well as here on earth.


[ read more ]

Contact Information

Our students are eager to know more about our graduates and what they have done since finishing a degree in mathematics. Please contact us with news about your current activities, mathematical and otherwise.

—Mark Gockenbach
Chair, Mathematical Sciences
906-487-2068
mathdept@mtu.edu