STEM Talks

STEM Talks are interviews College Factor conducts with leaders in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These conversations serve to inspire students to reach higher education and pursue a career in STEM.

In the summer of 2017 College Factor interviewed Professor Talea L. Mayo of the University of Central Florida. Dr. Mayo is assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Construction Engineering

What is your current job?

I am currently a professor at the University of Central Florida in the department of Civil, Environmental, and Construction Engineering.

What do you find fascinating about your career?

I love that I get to educate young scholars while simultaneously working on developing solutions to real world problems. A large part of my job is research and so I spend many hours each week trying to use mathematics to solve problems. The problems I work on mostly pertain to coastal flooding and hurricane storm surges in the US. I love that my work has such an important application.

We understand your work involves numerical modeling. Can you explain what this is, what math skills are required to do modeling and why do you find it interesting?

Numerical modeling is the process of solving complicated equations with the help of a computer. Scientists develop equations that describe real world processes, but these equations are usually too complicated to be solved by hand. Instead we approximate solutions to the equations using arithmetical operations that we can program computers to do.

The math skills required for numerical modeling can vary depending on what level of work is required. Running models requires some basic programming. Assessing the model output, or data, might require basic algebra and statistics. Developing the numerical models (and making sure they work in theory!) might require calculus, differential equations, numerical methods, and other upper level mathematics.

Could you explain what civil and environmental engineering is? If a student is interested in pursuing this field what math would an employer expect them to know?

Civil engineering is a broad term that includes many sub disciplines such as coastal, transportation, and environmental engineering. It essentially includes the building and design of natural and constructed systems in our environment. Bridges, buildings, and dams are all developed by civil engineers! A student interested in pursuing a career in civil engineering would be expected to know trigonometry, calculus, differential equations, and statistics. But students who don't have a good depth of understanding in these areas shouldn't be discouraged. They can take these courses in college and use (free) online resources to get even more comfortable with the subjects, e.g. Khan Academy and Coursera.

Could you give an example(s) of how you apply what you learned in high school math to do your job today?

One of the most common ways I apply high school math is when I want to know information at times/locations for which I don't have data. For example, often I have information (maybe rainfall amounts) for July and September but want that information for August. My first approach is almost always a linear interpolation. This is a fancy way of saying I write the equation of the line (y=mx+b) that connects my two data points, and then figure out what "y" is for my unknown x. In this case, x is the month, and y is the rainfall amount. Once I figure out the equation, I can put in any month and estimate the rainfall.

Why do you believe learning math is important to get a college degree?

I think math is important because it teaches you how to think. You learn basic concepts and then learn when/how to apply them in other instances. It's a lesson in logic, which is such a useful skill no matter what field you plan to enter.