I am currently an junior math and statistics student at the University of Florida. For my whole life I have really enjoyed math and really do find a calling in mathematics. Math classes are the only classes I've every really enjoyed in school. However, I also want to help people in some way or another; help those in need in America or abroad. My thoughts as current are that I can study impacts of economic or governmental policy on those in need and go out there and show those in power "this is what is happening because of insert some law/policy, here's the science to back it up, and here's what you should do to fix it".

That was just one idea that I am not particularly attached to. My problem is that I don't know what kind of jobs I could do to help people with math. I enjoy the structured, rigorous approach that mathematics has, but I want to help people in my lifetime. Much of what I learn is extremely interesting but it doesn't seem like it can help anyone, at least not for a long time.

So my questions are:

Is there a way to go to a math program and then afterwards take my knowledge and help people by developing math that is useful to people now? Do people study math at the graduate level and then NOT become pure mathematicians?

If not, then what kind of math could I study (be it statistics, applied math, bioinformatics, biostatistics, etc) to make an impact?

How do I learn about these fields/learn if I don't like them? From what I see there are only graduate courses in these specified fields, at least at UF. So I can't just take a course in it.

Does anyone know anyone who has done this/ or can give me general advice about this dilemma i'm having? I don't really know how to gather information and how to get a good feel for what I would enjoy studying. I love being in my math classes so I feel like I'll only be satisfied if I do something like that, but also aiding the world in some way.

Any advice would be of use. Thanks for your time.


TL;DR: Learn by reading, doing, following online courses. Join groups/clubs. Work on projects. Find the area you really enjoy. Eventually you'll contribute to helping people out especially if you believe in whatever field you end up joining.

I love your awesome attitude about math and I wish there were more people like you. Well, there is a lot you can do to help people with math. A LOT! It really boils down to what do you want the world to be like and help it be more like that.

Do you want a greener/cleaner world? Go into environmental engineering.

Do you want a healthier world? Go into the biomedical sector.

Do you want a more technological advanced world? Go into computer science or some technology related engineering field.

Do you want people to be more educated? Go into teaching.

Do you want to do either of these or more but the current environment won't let you? Start a startup company.

I could go on and on and on with these recommendations. The thing is that mathematics is a very flexible subject. You can do with it whatever you want. Heck, there are even Simpsons and Futurama writers who are mathematicians: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Westbrook

Don't worry too much about helping people out. It kinda comes as a side effect of doing math. For example, studying graph theory back in the days of Euler may have sounded niche and a waste of time but if it were not for graph theory, no internet. (and certainly no facebook... although... i know people who think that wouldn't be such a bad thing)

Focus on finding something you really like and just roll with it. My recommendation... read, read, read. If you have difficulties taking those courses, read the books. A trick I used to do is that I looked at the syllabi of the courses I wish I could take and just got the textbooks and went through them chapter by chapter.

Learn as much as you can: set theory, graph theory, game theory, optimization, cryptography, differential equations, algebra... whatever you can. And try not to limit yourself to mathematics. We live in a complex interconnected world. Many ideas in math today come from economics and biology and physics and all sorts of places.

When you say you'd like something like taking classes... you know, there just isn't enough time and it is not always possible. But youtube exists. And all those MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) like Coursera, EDX, or Udacity. They have loads of courses, some more mathy than others. Even all those computer science Udacity courses are interesting because computer science in the end is all about math.

But learning is not enough, actually working on projects is way more helpful. If you have access to clubs or can get friends to work on some project, you'll learn so much more. Just a simple project like getting a little robot to follow a line on the floor or making a video game will challenge you mathematically and thus you'll get to see how you can apply math in the real world.

So, don't worry too much. Just by your attitude I can tell that you'll manage to do good in the world with math. Just learn, practice, and make awesome.


(1) To maximize your value to society, do what you are best at; there are plenty of jobs waiting for people with mathematical qualifications. (1) In choosing a job, you can apply your own values. For example, you might consider that teaching is more worthwhile than helping a tobacco company market its products. (3) Don't be distracted by the immediacy of a job in helping people. For example, a paramedic attending an accident may save someone's life in the space of a minute; but someone who develops algorithms that enable an ambulance service to deploy its fleet more effectively saves lives no less.


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