Applying Mathematical Principles to the ‘Real World’
Padmanabhan “Padhu” Seshaiyer grew up in his native India dreaming about how to solve “real world” problems through mathematics. Now, a noted mathematician at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA where he is living out his passion, Padhu is also on a personal mission to change the often-negative perception and image that students have about math.
“When I hear a student in middle school, high school or college say ‘I hate math,’ I take it as a personal challenge to change their attitude towards mathematics,” says Padhu, Associate Dean for the College of Science and professor of Mathematical Sciences at George Mason University. At George Mason, he also serves as director of the STEM Accelerator Program in the College of Science and director of COMPLETE (Center for Outreach in Mathematics Professional Learning and Educational Technology).
“The majority of the students that feel this way,” he says, “are reacting, I think, not out of hate but out of a fear of math that they developed at an early age from confusion over such as questions as what rules to remember, which formulas to use, why learning math is even relevant, and when and where to apply mathematical principles to solve problems.”
These are important questions that stay with students as they transition from K-12 school levels to college, says Padhu, and this fear of math can evolve into hate or anxiety during this time. “So as a university faculty member, I feel that one of my greatest challenges (and greatest opportunity) is to reinforce the concepts the students may already know through previous mathematical experiences, and provide the students with an experience of how mathematics can be applied in science and engineering.”
Today, as an applied mathematician, Padhu is living his dream of using mathematics to solve “real world problems in biological, bio-inspired and engineering systems” – thanks to the strong foundation he developed in math as a young student in India.
“As a child I was fascinated with mathematics and engineering, and I truly believed I could solve any problem using math,” he recalls.
Although the mathematical training he received in India was based strongly on textbook theory and taught by some of the best teachers and mentors available, all which helped him build a solid foundation, Padhu wanted more – specifically how to translate theory into real-world application.
“I enjoyed being theoretically very strong, but I began to realize that I was lacking the complete understanding of what it really means to ‘solve any problem,’ as in any ‘real world problem.’ So, as I was learning more and more mathematics, I constantly kept asking myself, ‘What do I do with this formula?’ This helped me to set my goals for the future.”
It is this insatiable curiosity about how to apply mathematical theory to everyday problems that Padhu encourages teachers to instill in their students.
In describing his work as a scientist in applied mathematics –an endeavor that involves working with a wide range of researchers in other disciplines including neurosurgery, aerodynamics, biology and academia to solve complex scientific and engineering problems — he says: “The diversity that mathematics provides in multidisciplinary problem solving and the connections it provides to multiphysics real-world applications is like no other subject! “
For instance, through this collaborative multi-disciplinary approach, Padhu was able to contribute to key questions about the rupture of intracranial saccular aneurysms (commonly known as brain clots) which cause between 2-5% of the deaths in the United States each year. “My key contributions to this medical condition include providing neurosurgeons with real-time mathematical modeling solutions to biological problems associated with this disorder.”
In addition to his laboratory research and teaching endeavors at George Mason University, Padhu also is proud that he is able to transfer his knowledge “back into the broader community –specifically to middle and high school classrooms.“ He does this by being actively involved with area school districts in developing new initiatives and programs that enhance the quality of teachers and introduce students to career options in science and engineering.
Padhu received his Bachelors of Science degree (with honors) in Electrical and Electronics Engineering and his Masters degree in Mathematics from Birla Institute of Technology & Science (Pilani, India). He then earned his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and then completed a Biomedical Engineering Program at Texas A&M University as a Post-doctoral Research Associate (“to understand how I could apply my mathematical and science skills to an area that was completely new to me”).
He advises students who are contemplating a career in math, science or engineering to: hone their skills in oral and written communication, group dynamics, networking and time management, in addition to keeping abreast of technology within and outside their field.
“Most importantly the students must have a willingness to learn and explore new topics!”
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