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Math Degrees Help Pave ODU Alumna’s Path to Job With NSA

By Tiffany Whitfield

Old Dominion University alumna Candice Gerstner's love of math developed at an early age.

"I spent my summers doing basic math and collecting membership money at my father's gym, which laid the foundation for my quest for knowledge in mathematics," Gerstner said. "I was fortunate to have some great math teachers, which helped to keep my interest and strive for perfection."

That quest for perfection has paid off. She works as an applied research mathematician for the National Security Agency in the Department of Defense and is a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The award is considered the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government for scientists beginning their careers.

"I utilize machine learning to develop automated techniques at cloud scale to distinguish between machine and human generated textual content, extract content from images of structured documents and detect manipulated digital images," Gerstner said.

She received her M.S. and Ph.D. in computational and applied mathematics from ODU, earning her doctorate in 2011. While at ODU, she worked alongside scientists at NASA Langley and was a part of a team that worked on modeling the transport of particles for space radiation applications.

"I had a lifelong dream to be a mathematician for NASA," Gerstner said.

She said all of the professors in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics helped her while she pursued her degrees. She particularly cited John Tweed was one of the most influential faculty members she had. She served as a research assistant for him.

"Dr. Tweed really took me under his wing and gave me the opportunity to work with him on both my masters and Ph.D. theses, and he was the one that made my dream of working for NASA a reality," Gerstner said.

The mentorship she received from Tweed is something she models in her current position.

"I am forever grateful for his mentorship and have been doing my best to give back to the mathematics community by mentoring many of the mathematicians that come through the agency within their first few years," Gerstner said.

In her current position she develops innovative approaches to improve mathematical techniques in machine learning and related fields.

"I use the computational and reasoning skills that I learned almost every day in my job," she said. "In particular, I have developed new approaches to improve generative adversarial networks and image/video authentication capabilities."

For anyone considering pursing a graduate degree in mathematics at ODU, Gerstner has some advice.

"I would tell them that if they love math and want to learn how to apply their skills to practical problems, they are in a great place," she said.

She also believes more women should pursue STEM careers.

"Diversity is extremely important for real advances to be made in STEM-related fields," Gerstner said, "and women sometimes have a different way of thinking about a problem, which can and has led to breakthroughs in the past."

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