By Shannon Deep (CMU'10, HNZ'11)

It didn’t take Carson Sestili long to realize that he knew less about math than he thought. The Pittsburgh native had grown up hearing that Carnegie Mellon had a great reputation for math and science, and when he was accepted to the school, it seemed like a no-brainer to attend. But after he started classes in the math department, his preconceptions about the field changed.

“My experience of math had been that I liked calculus in high school, but that’s so much not what math is actually about. So it was really lucky that I ended up liking what it actually is!” the junior math major laughs, looking back.

Sestili says math is more about explanations than calculations: “It’s understanding the underlying structure that is present in whatever system you set up and being able to communicate it to other people in a way they can understand.”

This more grounded approach to what can be a highly theoretical field is purposeful. According to the head of the Mathematical Sciences Department, Tom Bohman, the focus Sestili describes is precisely what makes Carnegie Mellon’s math department stand out—and why the popularity of the program has increased dramatically over the past decade. According to Bohman, following the broader Carnegie Mellon model, the department has chosen to accentuate a few specialized areas, much like it zoomed in on a graduate degree in computational finance that is now ranked #1 in the nation by QuantNet, a leading online news outlet in the field of financial engineering. More generally, The Wall Street Journal ranks Carnegie Mellon #4 in the country for finance programs.

The department’s fortes are combinatorics, applied analysis, mathematical finance, and Sestili’s newfound fascination: logic. He sees himself either pursuing a graduate degree in an area like logic, where “math and computer science and philosophy intersect,” or taking a job that combines his skills in critical reasoning and programming, like in a software company. He has been well prepared for either next step; getting students ready for further academic study or to walk into a professional setting is another explicit goal of the department, Bohman says.

“I don’t think very many math departments are structured so purposefully, the way we are,” says Bohman, who has been with the university since 1998 and a department head since 2012. “The areas where we have strength are the areas of math that are very intellectually vibrant from a mathematical standpoint but also historically have the potential to impact other areas.”

An example of this crossover is the automatic engagement students have with computer science, another of the university’s top-ranked programs. All students in the Mellon College of Science—which houses the math department—are required to take a semester of programming. For Sestili, this requirement turned into a true enjoyment and appreciation of the neighboring field.

The department’s strength in and focus on such “practical” mathematical arenas has caught the attention of the Benter Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based grant-making organization dedicated to supporting “education, youth development, human services, the arts and amenities, global citizenship, and sustainable practices” in the Pittsburgh region. The foundation has given $1 million to the university to endow a new scholarship for undergraduates in the Department of Mathematical Sciences.

Founded just seven years ago, the Benter Foundation has made several gifts to the university, spanning disciplines from public policy to the arts. Previous gifts have supported:

• An initiative through the Heinz College of Public Policy and Management to increase the availability of wheelchairs for the disabled in areas of Mexico, through the American Wheelchair Mission, whose goal is to increase wheelchair availability worldwide

• Projects through Traffic21 in the Heinz College, which uses multidisciplinary research to design and execute technology-based solutions to transportation problems such as urban congestion in the Pittsburgh region and beyond

• Operating and transition costs for Conflict Kitchen, an art project-cum-restaurant that only serves food from countries in conflict with the United States in order to engage locals in the culture and politics of the focus country

The latest grant will provide scholarships to applied math majors for tuition support. The Benter Foundation Board of Directors President Bill Benter gave the scholarship funds in June 2013 to honor the end of Jared Cohon’s tenure as university president. “Supporting talented students is critical today if we are to grow innovative leaders in basic research, computer science, business, and other fields that rely on quantitative skills,” says Benter.

 Increasing tuition support with scholarships like these is a major concern for Bohman as well, knowing how many students graduate with tuition debt. “There’s a pressure to choose to do something that generates an income,” he says. Every year, he speaks to superstar students who eschew further academic study after graduation in favor of going directly into the job market, nipping in the bud what he believes could be stellar research careers.

“I hope,” he says, “that the Benter Foundation scholarship will be directed at folks who are going to be really exceptional and put them in a position when they graduate to not have that financial pressure. The extent to which we could facilitate a little bit more freedom for these students when they graduate is really valuable for them and for the field.”

As a rising senior, Sestili is happy to see another scholarship established. After all, he knows what that’s all about, having been awarded the Pedersen Memorial Scholarship for tuition support last spring. Looking forward, he knows that his financial path will be a little less bumpy, no matter what he chooses to pursue.


Shannon Deep (CMU’10, HNZ’11) of New York City has been a regular contributor to this magazine since her senior year at Carnegie Mellon.