Meet CSE: Michael Thomas

Graduate Q&A: Michael M. Thomas

Interdisciplinary scholarship is woven into the fabric of Georgia Tech and a degree in computational science and engineering (CSE). CSE graduates work in industry, national labs, academia, and government jobs where they make immediate, real-world impact.

One of those graduates is Michael M. Thomas, who just completed his Ph.D. in CSE this spring. In a Q&A discussion, Thomas described his experiences in the CSE program and where his degree is taking him next. 

What interested you in studying at Georgia Tech in the first place?

I started out as a mathematics major, becoming lost like many undergraduate students do. I followed my talents at the time but was not really sure what direction I was heading. As my career progressed, I became interested in biostatistics because I wanted to leverage my mathematical tools to improve the ways we approached keeping people healthy. 

I worked with state governments for years in public health fields and learned I needed to sharpen my quantitative tools in a formal setting with applied fields, like engineering. This led me to Georgia Tech, which offered interdisciplinary programs that blended many academic fields and rewarded solving problems that would have impacts that went beyond theory. 

What was your most notable research interest or project while at Georgia Tech?

Covid-19 colored nearly my entire time at Georgia Tech. I remember sitting in the accepted student day event, listening to my future advisor tell students how to avoid handshakes in favor of more distanced greetings. I worked for the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) at the time and was asked to work on the Covid-19 response. Collaboration with researchers from Emory and Georgia Tech inspired a few of the contributions I worked on early in my career. 

I developed an analysis to determine whether transit crowding was a factor in Covid-19 outbreak size determination. I also developed a modeling approach that uses data from urban centers to help improve the accuracy of predictions in locations that did not yet have cases. Without having spent time working before pursuing my Ph.D., I would not have had as keen a sense of what was going on in the practical world as it relates to disease modeling.

You worked at Georgia DPH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) while pursuing your Ph.D. Was there a specific time when your education and work experience overlapped into something memorable or impactful?

Absolutely. Being a computing student at Georgia Tech helped me better predict what the sources of problems were in my work at DPH. I think before I got into the CSE program, it was less clear to me what my options were when facing massive data sets. 

I’d seen many people approach scale issues by buying as much computing power as possible. However, I developed better intuition for ways around these issues through courses like Introduction to Computational Thinking and Algorithms. Using memory and thinking about the way programming languages operate can overcome these challenges more cleverly. 

What is your favorite memory from Georgia Tech?

Michael Thomas Coda

I have a few, but the first that comes to mind are the quiet moments in the CODA building. The Network Dynamics Lab, where my advisor’s team works, is on a high floor in CODA. Graduate students are known for keeping unusual work hours because of the number of responsibilities that come along with the Ph.D. process. When taking breaks from studying or research, I saw through the windows of CODA sunsets, fireworks, Stone Mountain, cold and dewy mornings, neon lights, changing trees, and incoming storms. I could even see Kennesaw Mountain, which reminded me of my undergrad and how far I have come since I graduated from there. It also encouraged me to take time to rest; doing mentally taxing work for long periods of time did not work until I learned how to rest and recharge between tasks.

What advice would you give to other students who are just starting on their Ph.D. here?

Have some humility. At some point, you will have to ask someone for help with something difficult, and the sooner you start doing that, the better your performance in a Ph.D. program will be. There is no award for doing everything alone, you will get way farther in your career if you see your pursuits as collaborative as opposed to individualistic. You have a lot to provide the people around you, too. Help them out when you can. Being a good peer is essential to having a good graduate experience. 

What is next in your career? How did Georgia Tech help you get there?
A culmination of my experience in public health roles and at Georgia Tech landed me the Public Health Informatics Fellowship Program position I currently have at the CDC. I work for the Viral Vaccine Preventable Diseases Branch, supporting epidemiologists’ efforts to respond when outbreaks happen and prepare tools and methods for disease prevention. I also do some statistical consulting from time to time with Ph.D. students in other disciplines looking for advice or statistical programming support on their dissertations.