Protecting the Planet With Math

Kristen GasserKristen Gasser

Senior Machine Learning Engineer, FamilySearch

After Kristen Gasser earned her bachelor’s degree in math, she taught math, worked in accounting and then became a Java engineer for 14 years. “I wanted to eventually further my studies in math and have a job where I could really use my math degree,” said Kristen.

As the years went on, she began to learn more about programs in applied math. “Rather than pure math, which was theoretical and full of proofs, applied math centered on computation, which is what I enjoyed and was good at,” said Kristen.  

As a mother of four with a full-time job, returning to school seemed impossible — that was until she discovered the UW online Master of Science in Applied & Computational Mathematics.

In this Q&A, Kristen talks about her experience in the program, how earning her master’s degree helped her transition into a new role as a senior machine learning engineer and her new dream of using her math skills to protect the planet.


What do you do as a senior machine learning engineer?

My work is half Java and half data analysis. I help develop a machine learning system that performs image classification. It analyzes, sorts and publishes billions of historical documents. People can search through these documents to learn more about their family history.

How did the UW online Master of Science in Applied & Computational Mathematics help you transition into this new role?

I was already a Java engineer. I was able to change jobs because my company needed someone at a senior level with advanced math skills.

Why did you choose the University of Washington?

As a working mom, I had no idea how I could even start school. The University of Washington came up in a search, and I liked that program was online and that I could do it part time. I’m also originally from the Pacific Northwest, which made it an extra win.

What was your favorite course?

I learned a lot of data analysis techniques in Nathan Kutz’s class Computational Methods for Data Analysis. The class focused on projects and so I gained a lot of hands-on experience. I also published a portfolio of my work from this course on my own website and in my GitHub repository. It was because of this course that I was able to have the projects and skills necessary to change jobs at my company.

Could you talk a bit more about the program’s faculty?

Every single professor I had was phenomenal. They cared to make sure you understood what was going on. Even the teaching assistants were amazing.

Would you talk about your passion for math in the natural sciences?

I always had an interest in the natural sciences and medicine, and over the years, I developed a concern for the environment. After I took a summer epidemiology class, I was hooked and tried to pick up as many courses as I could in the natural sciences. 

What’s next?

I’m content in my job because I get to use a lot of the skills I learned in the master’s program, but I’m also on the lookout for ways I could contribute my math skills to society. I’d love to take on a consulting gig once or twice a year and build mathematical models to help fisheries manage fish stock. Perhaps I could help a forestry company model tree growth or the spread of pests like the bark beetle. A professor from this program is connecting me with a university in Utah to see if there are any opportunities for me to use my math skills on a project in medicine.