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Faculty Excellence Chris McCauley November 28, 2023

Tricia Phillips, Ph.D.Tricia Phillips, Ph.D.Sometimes, when planning a future career, people need a mentor or a friend to give them a thoughtful nudge or an encouraging word to pursue their dreams and true interests. For Tricia Phillips, Ph.D., assistant professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Mathematics, it was an advanced placement (AP) calculus teacher who told her she could become a college-level mathematics instructor despite her doubts.

“I just had this thought that maybe I wasn’t good enough to major in math. It was a perception that I had for no reason,” said Phillips. “He really encouraged me to pursue math as a major in college. And so that’s what I ended up doing... [later] when I was an undergraduate [at Hartwick College], I was like, ‘Okay, this is the math I want to teach.’”

After that realization, she was off and running, later pursuing her graduate studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, then, this fall, accepting a job as an assistant professor at UAB.

For Phillips, the emerging vision of UAB’s Department of Mathematics aligns with her long-term teaching goals perfectly, while also creating space and opportunities for her to offer supportive career nudges to her students.

“I was very drawn to a position that was focused primarily on teaching but also had the other aspects of a broader definition of scholarship and, of course, service for the department. And, particularly, that the service is supporting the undergraduate program—that’s just where my passion lies,” said Phillips.

So far, her first semester at UAB has been a great fit. In addition to her teaching and service interests, Phillips conducts research related to mathematical biology—a field that syncs up nicely with UAB’s renowned natural sciences departments and the institution’s overarching emphasis on health and medicine.

“I look at epidemiological and ecological problems from a mathematical perspective—particularly math modeling,” said Phillips. “I work with data and make predictions related to the biological questions at hand. It’s actually a very accessible research area for students, even at the undergraduate level [and through the fast-track program]. Given that UAB is a medical campus and very health science driven, it fits really well. UAB is the perfect place for me to be to collaborate across disciplines.”

Although she’s only been with the Department of Mathematics for a few months, Phillips is finding myriad ways to engage her students inside and outside of the classroom.

She believes math coursework needs to be accessible, creative, and engaging. And she’s applying those priorities by updating the Math Reasoning Track in the department and ensuring students have more choices in their required and elective courses. According to Phillips, the courses are very reasoning-focused and relevant to students.

In addition to the work she’s doing with the Math Reasoning Track, Phillips is teaching applied calculus courses titled “Mathematics of Biological Systems I” and “Mathematics of Biological Systems II”; developing a future City as Classroom course titled, “Data Dive into Birmingham”; and redesigning and modernizing Math 107 (pre-calculus and trigonometry) with contemporary data sets and an emphasis on diversity and inclusion. Throughout all of these courses, creativity and fresh thinking abounds.

Outside of the classroom, she’s finding ways to illuminate career pathways for her students in her role as Career Development and Placement Director for the Department of Mathematics, supporting her students in the same way her AP calculus teacher supported her. As the director of this new effort, Phillips works with juniors and seniors to connect them with local companies they’re interested in working for. She’s also collaborating with the UAB Career Center and the CAS advising team.

“We want to better support students in finding jobs,” said Phillips.

Also, she is seeking ways to bring mathematicians to campus to speak directly to students through the “Perspectives” lecture series. During these talks, alumni from the Department of Mathematics—as well as mathematicians who work for local companies—come to campus and talk about the ways in which they apply their mathematical knowledge in the workplace. From data scientists to actuaries, students are getting to learn more about the varied journeys from the classroom to the office.

“Math majors can do a variety of jobs,” said Phillips. “Anything that requires problem solving, critical thinking, and modeling. There are more traditional routes, like being an accountant or an analyst or a consultant. But some people also go to law school, they go to med school. And there can be unique [jobs] too—people can be an urban planner or a cryptographer.”

The next “Perspectives” talk will feature Brandon Barry, Ph.D., Senior Risk Data Scientist and VP at Regions Bank. The talk will take place on January 26 at 2:30 p.m. You can learn more about the event here.

Although Phillips is just getting started at UAB, it’s clear that her student-centered vision will likely yield powerful outcomes for her current and future students.

“Working with students is one of my favorite things to do,” said Phillips. “I definitely want to see the potential in students and bring it out.”

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