"Conservatives like iceberg lettuce, whereas liberals like arugula." It's a mathematical equation. Matt Gattis, co-founder of Hunch.com—a Web site that helps users make decisions based on personality test results—was among the math aficionados gathered for Wednesday's Startup-Math Collaboration, hosted by the Columbia University Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. Crunching the numbers, he said, was the key to discovering which kinds of lettuce politicos prefer. The event Wednesday evening joined executives from "Silicon Alley"—the name given to a group of Internet-based companies in Manhattan—with Columbia students and faculty interested in applying math to real world problems. The executives presented quantitative problems their companies face for the audience to address and solve. They also offered up nontraditional career paths for math experts who may not know how to apply their degrees to the job market. "A lot of students don't know that math research is still living and ongoing. It is still an active field of exploration," noted Chris Wiggins, associate professor of applied math and physics and CC '93. Wiggins collaborated with Huffington Post co-founder Jonah Peretti to launch the Startup-Math Collaboration last spring. Wiggins added that many students who study mathematics at Columbia often head to careers in finance without realizing that their degrees offer other career options. "Wall Street casts a very long shadow over Manhattan," he said. "There's a force that you have to fight. You have to fight that magnetic field to resist easy jobs," said Cherie Meyer, SEAS '10 and an applied math major. By "easy," she meant jobs that were "easily found." That is where Startup-Math Collaboration comes in, according to Wiggins. It connects students with potential employees whose work may be of interest to them. The goal, he said, is to seek out internet start-ups and bring them to campus to connect with students in a setting that allows a free exchange of ideas. Todd Levy, CC '06 and vice president of product and engineering at bit.ly said of Columbia students missing out on the start-up community, "there was a fair bit of talent here, and it wasn't getting connected." Gattis' Hunch.com compiles data and correlations—such as lettuce preference and political ideology—though their researchers have yet to mathematically measure the degree to which people with particular political affinities like varieties of lettuce. The site's current model only considers trends in extremes. Gattis turned to the crowd for suggestions and improvisations. Analysts Gene Kogan and Gold Truong, both SEAS '08, represented FreshDirect, a New York-based start-up specializing in online grocery orders to provide fresh foods at low prices. Math problems posed to the crowd included how to optimize packaging time and develop an algorithm for better, less random, recommendations for customers. For students like Meyer, this event addressed options for how to apply math to a future career. And when it comes to finding job opportunities off the beaten path: "You have to do your own research if you're going to do something other than consulting." NOTE: An earlier version of this article misstated the schools of Gene Kogan and Gold Truong. Spectator regrets the error.
Phoebe Lytle for Spectator