Research scientist, Institute for Disease Modeling
- Bachelor’s degree, University of Arizona, Physics, Mathematics, and Economics
- Master’s degree, University of Washington, Applied Mathematics
- Ph.D., University of Washington, Applied Mathematics
- Research Scientist, Institute for Disease Modeling
- Research Associate and NSF Graduate Fellow, University of Washington
- Teaching Assistant, University of Washington
Reflecting on his experiences in graduate education, Niket Thakkar, Ph.D. ’17, says teaching math to incarcerated women was one of the most rewarding and impactful.
Since his undergraduate days at the University of Arizona in Tuscon, through defending his dissertation in Applied Mathematics, Niket has held a passion for expanding mathematical education in underserved communities.
It’s important work, Niket says, because as mathematical approaches are increasingly considered best-practice in many industries, literacy in mathematics is becoming even more critical. The Graduate School agreed, and for his public outreach efforts and his scholarly achievements recently awarded Niket the Graduate School Medal.
These efforts have included leading interactive math and science demonstrations to children at Lockwood Elementary School in Bothell with the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, and teaching an introductory math course to incarcerated women with Freedom Education Project Puget Sound.
Niket says he became involved with the Seattle-based Freedom Education Project after attending a panel by formerly incarcerated students and learning that Freedom Education Project is often in need of math and science instructors. The education project brings accredited college-level courses to incarcerated people at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, with an option to earn an associate or bachelor of arts degree.
As a teacher with the education project, Niket worked with a fellow student to design a curriculum and lesson plans, give weekly lectures and assign classwork and exams. His supervisor, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Adjunct Associate Professor of Applied Mathematics David Masiello, said in a letter of reference that Niket “accomplished all of this with boundless enthusiasm and 100% dedication to each of his commitments, somehow returning from each trip (to the corrections center in Gig Harbor) with more energy than when he left.”
Teaching with the education project was inspiring, Niket says, and something he continues to reflect on and learn from. While he was familiar with statistics showing that recidivism rates decrease by nearly half when incarcerated people access educational opportunities, nothing drove home the importance of education quite like being in a prison classroom.
One day, due to a scheduling conflict, class was cancelled in the middle of the lesson. Seeing how upset the students were that class was cancelled made him realize “it’s incredible how much they care about this. It matters to them a lot. That was pretty moving.”
Niket hopes his students took from his classes a new sense of confidence, he says.
“Math is often presented as a barrier to a lot of people, particularly people of color and women. They’re told at a very young age math is not for them. So, there’s something pretty powerful about, years later, taking a math class and succeeding.”
While it’s unlikely any of his students will choose to become professional mathematicians, “if they leave that class with the sense they can accomplish anything they try — that’s powerful,” he says.
While Niket moved to Seattle from Arizona pursuing graduate school and life in a bigger city, he’s decided to stick around for its proximity to the outdoors and its smart, motivated citizens with varied interests.
Since graduating with his Ph.D. this spring, Niket has chosen to continue making a public impact with his career, taking a job with the Institute for Disease Modeling. There, he works with a team that aims to predict and prevent disease outbreaks around the world. An affiliate of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization, the institute looks to eventually eradicate malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.
Citing Niket’s research at the UW, his interactions with peers and his contributions locally to the Seattle community, Masiello wrote, “Niket’s past and future efforts point to his active civic engagement and commitment to improving our society, both locally and globally.”
published July 6, 2017