10 Minutes With: Hyungsuk Tak, SAMSI Postdoctoral Fellow

We recently took a moment to   connect with one of our busy   Postdoctoral Fellows, Hyungsuk Tak. We took ten minutes and asked him ten questions…This is what he had to say:

1. What made you decide to pursue a future in mathematics? Who has inspired you the most in your career thus far?

Tak: I have loved mathematics since my college days! But I did not like doing math for the sake of mathematics. I know that it is exciting for some people, but to me, it was boring. Instead, I wanted to use mathematics to solve real-world problems. In this sense, Statistics was PERFECT FOR ME. However, I had no intention to pursue a Ph.D. until I met Professor Carl N. Morris in the Harvard Statistics Department. He helped me experience statistical research and this motivated me to transfer into the Ph.D. program. During my Ph.D., I met Professors Xiao-Li Meng and David van Dyk who introduced Astro-Statistics to me. This later became my career path and it is why I am working in the ASTRO Program here at SAMSI.

2. Where did you grow up and where did you go to school?

Tak: I grew up in Seoul, South Korea. I also received my undergrad degree there. I then moved to the USA for my masters and Ph.D. in Statistics at Harvard.


“I personally believe that mathematical ability comes from the power of thinking, the power of thinking comes from imagining something, and imagining something comes from reading books.”


3. When you aren’t tackling complex math equations or doing research, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Tak: I mainly do three things in my spare time: 1) reading; 2) exercise; and 3) surf the internet. For instance, in the morning I always read a book (written in Korean) while I have breakfast, for about 30 minutes – I like historical and classical novels more than contemporary ones. If I find the book really interesting, then I often read the book after I get home until I go to bed. I also do exercise for about two hours on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. When I was a child I suffered from tuberculosis, so health is the most important thing in my life. When I get home, I often spend most of my time surfing the internet and get caught up with current events by reading Korean news articles. I really enjoy seeing how our new Korean president, Moon Jae-in, is doing? He is the person I voted for in the recent Korean Presidential Election.

4. What were some of the reasons you decided to apply for a SAMSI Postdoctoral fellowship?

Tak: There were three reasons: 1) SAMSI post-docs have a great amount of freedom in doing research because SAMSI allows post-docs to work with any professors or researchers at Duke, UNC, NCSU, and/or any other universities in the USA; 2) SAMSI is the place where domain scientists visit (physically or remotely) for collaborations, which means there are plenty of opportunities to learn new things. Finally, SAMSI post-doc fellows receive a generous salary for a post-doc position in Statistics.

5. What are some of the things that have intrigued you about the SAMSI program you are supporting this academic year?

Tak: I currently serve in the ASTRO program. The most intriguing thing is that I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to meet and work with astronomers who have brought interesting and realistic problems to SAMSI during the workshops or weekly meetings. All my current research, that was initiated after I came to SAMSI, is based on solving these realistic problems.

6. What program or workshops will you be supporting in the 2017-2018 academic year? Are you looking forward to any new research coming up?

Tak: I am continuing my research in Astro-Statistics rather than start new research in other fields unless there is a program closely related to my current research in terms of methodology.

7. How are you enjoying living and working in North Carolina?

Tak: When I landed at the RDU airport (from Boston), I saw, from the airplane, that N.C. is full of trees. Everything I saw through the window in the airplane was green with almost no buildings – I immediately loved this nature-friendly environment. I saw a fox (or coyote) and I have seen many deer around SAMSI; one day three deer were standing next to the entrance! I really enjoy N.C. for the nature-friendly lifestyle. I also enjoy sometimes hiking and walking trails.

8. When your time is over at SAMSI, what will you miss the most and why?

Tak: I will miss the people at SAMSI the most. For example, post-docs, administrative officers, directors, graduate and faculty fellows, visitors, and custodians. Since I spend most of my time on the SAMSI campus, plus the fact that the institute is a little isolated (surrounded by woods), even a short and small interaction with people at SAMSI has been invaluable and memorable to me.

9. What are your plans for the future? Do you see yourself working in academics or business/industry and why?

Tak: I am going to apply for a tenure-track position at an academic institution in the US this winter. If it does not work out however, then I will start looking for industry jobs early next year. I may not do a second post-doc.

10. What advice and/or guidance would you give to other undergraduate/graduate students interested in working in mathematics?

Tak: I recommend reading as many books as possible. I personally believe that mathematical ability comes from the power of thinking, the power of thinking comes from imagining something, and imagining something comes from reading books. Again, this is not based on a causal inference but based on my personal belief (prior information that can be biased!).

Undergrad Workshop Helps Student See Bright Future in Applied Math and Statistics

My name is Victoria Sabo and I am a mathematics and Spanish double major at Georgetown University. I am very interested in applying math to problem solving in the real world, such as using programing and data in security, population modeling, analyzing businesses, or even tracking supermarket inventory to minimize product waste.

My research interests are why I applied to the SAMSI undergraduate workshop from May 14-19. The workshop gave me the opportunity to apply mathematics and computer science to realms usually isolated from the sciences. Based on the description, I imagined being exposed to new applications of math, stats, and computing while having the opportunity to harness my mathematics knowledge to solve an actual problem that I may not have known could be solved using the skills of a mathematics major. In the end, I gained ample skills, both academic and professional, and I was able to test them out while working on my own group research project.

David Jones, SAMSI Postdoctoral Fellow, presents information on the Light Curve Project to students at the Institute for Advanced Analytics on the campus of North Carolina State University. The instruction was part of SAMSI’s week-long Interdisciplinary Workshop for Undergraduate Students, May 14-19, 2017.

After dedicated postdocs presented the overviews of six projects, we were allowed to rank our top choices:

  1. Lightcurve Classification for Periodically Varying Stars (Light Curves Project)
  2. Distributionally Robust Stochastic Programming for Financial Applications (Finance)
  3. Finding Exoplanets Using Radial Velocity Data (Exoplanets)
  4. Automatic Genre Classification of Music Pieces (Music)
  5. Time Delay Estimation for Gravitationally Lensed Light Curves (Time Delay)
  6. Data Assimilation for Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP)

I was fortunate enough to receive my first choice which was the Automatic Music Genre Classification project. That meant for the entire week, I would work on a team to investigate algorithms used for supervised learning, where training data taken from a music dataset, to be used to create a system for predicting the genres of unlabeled songs.

When we first met in groups, we discussed how to read the data and began thinking of probability techniques common to machine learning that would be useful for the task. We read scholarly articles about previous approaches to the problem, then met the following day to begin coding programs based on our dataset.

“I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of the attendees at the workshop. The backgrounds of the students ranged from civil engineering, to a double major in math and piano…This variety in background facilitates the sharing and cross-pollination of ideas from different fields, which I deeply appreciated.”                                                                                                                – Kevin Multani,  Applied Science, Department of Engineering Physics, University of British Columbia – Vancouver, Canada

An undergraduate student presents the findings of her group’s project during SAMSI’s Interdisciplinary Workshop for Undergraduate Students held on the campus of North Carolina State University May 14-19, 2017.

As the week went by, we experimented with different combinations of song features, such as loudness, danceability, and song_hotttnesss (no, not a typo), and various techniques. The techniques, used for coding the data, aimed at achieving the highest accuracy in song genre classification. The techniques included: k-means clustering; k nearest neighborhood; Gaussian classifiers; PCA; and t-SNE. Through this process it was very interesting to note the limitations on our research and how the attributes, such as the data set qualities or the time constraint, affected what we could accomplish. Overall, this research project introduced me to what it was like to work on a team to conduct formal research. I also enjoyed spending the week bouncing ideas off of my other group members as we worked to solve a problem found at the intersection of two distinct subjects: math and music.

Besides just the experience of working in a research group, I created lifelong memories from this workshop thanks to the incredibly intelligent people I had the pleasure of meeting. I was introduced to undergraduates from across the United States and Canada, many of whom had international backgrounds as well. Everyone possessed a unique skill set, from their university, when it came to computer programing. The diverse backgrounds of every participant contributed to the success of the research project because of the various courses taken by the undergraduate students. I loved hearing about everyone’s majors and their career goals. I found it was invaluable to be able to exchange advice with people who were as interested in the sciences as myself. During meals and breaks, we would discuss our intended graduate study goals as well as past research we had conducted thus far. I was given advice on what conferences to attend and which schools were best for certain master’s degree or Ph.D. programs. I definitely have reevaluated my future plans since conversing with and listening to such a wide range of science and math students.

One of my peers in the workshop, Kevin Multani, an undergraduate student from the University of British Columbia – Vancouver, Canada had similar points to share:
I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of the attendees at the workshop. The backgrounds of the students ranged from civil engineering, to a double major in math and piano — there was even a student who was double majoring in Philosophy and History (of Mathematics)! This variety in background facilitates the sharing and cross-pollination of ideas from different fields, which I deeply appreciated. Most of my learning came from discussion and conversation with the students and mentors. In fact, through conversation with my mentor, David Jones, I’ve gained a solid understanding on what to expect for graduate school. Overall, the SAMSI Undergraduate Workshop was a refreshing experience, both personally and academically.

Even though the friends that I made during the week were an enriching part of this SAMSI undergraduate workshop experience, the panels and talks organized for us also made an impact on me academically. We received information on North Carolina State University’s master’s program for science in analytics, since the Institute for Applied Analytics, where the event was hosted, is located on the university’s campus. I came out of this workshop with a broader understanding of the great career opportunities in data analytics. Thanks to the talk from Michael Rappa on opportunities in data analytics and his program within the institute, my eyes were opened as to how many different applications of data analytics there are for people with those skills. For instance, I had never considered that someone with a math background was needed to calculate the appropriate amount of supermarket inventory to prevent over and under stocking? Likewise, I did not know that companies hired analysts to evaluate their businesses in order to maximize the efficiency of their hiring efforts. Due to my interests in applying math to real world problems, I am now going to focus my efforts on exploring this area as a possible career path. I am also looking forward to augmenting my computer programming skills because I recognize now, that for these types of jobs, coding and programming, in addition to a solid linear algebra and classical mathematics background, are essential skills for the type of work in which I am interested.

A group of students prepares for their project presentation during SAMSI’s Interdisciplinary Workshop for Undergraduate Students, May 14-19, 2017. The workshop required students to work in multiple groups and present findings on assigned subjects.

I entered this SAMSI workshop as a mathematics major, but I lacked the knowledge of how I could put that degree to good use applying math knowledge to real world problems. After the workshop however, I have now conducted research in an application of math to music; something I never imagined was possible!

I was also introduced to countless other opportunities available for individuals trained in math, computer science, and analyzation techniques. I feel that by taking more courses geared towards applications of math in the real world, I can better prepare myself to succeed in a career in data analytics. Additionally, I am now informed on what it takes to create a successful application to graduate school and which programs I should consider that will best prepare me for a productive and fulfilling future.

Therefore, this undergraduate research workshop not only provided me with research, public speaking, and teamwork experience, but it also educated me on what options exist for my future. Although I have much more to think about, SAMSI was a starting point in helping me determine where I would like to see myself in the coming years and helped to catalyze the best way for me to utilize my mathematics and computing knowledge to benefit others in the future.

Undergraduate students from across the nation pose for a group shot during SAMSI’s Interdisciplinary Workshop for Undergraduate Students, May 14-19, 2017.