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March 20, 2024 | Alumni

Dorian Goldman on how U of T led to a career in decision optimization

By Rebecca Cheung

Dorian Goldman smiling

His training in math and his years studying at U of T continue to serve Dorian Goldman in his work and life now.

In a world confounded by numerous choices and competing priorities, it is reassuring to have alumni like Dorian Goldman (BSc 2007 SMC, MSc 2008) at the helm, providing guidance.

“In a nutshell, I’m trying to optimize decision-making,” says Goldman, who works as a data scientist and technical lead at the rideshare company Lyft in New York.

Goldman, who earned his honours bachelor of science as a member of St. Michael's College in 2007 and a master of science in 2008 from the Department of Mathematics in the Faculty of Arts & Science, specializes in casual interference: digging deep into data to better understand the causes of specific outcomes.

“Who are the drivers and riders we should target with incentives? Should we set prices in such a way that maximizes growth? How can we optimize our position in the marketplace?” says Goldman. “Every day involves making multiple decisions; my team is focused on making the right ones.”

From engineering to math

Though he works in planning and prediction, Goldman never foresaw a career in tech, leveraging his expertise in math.

Initially enrolled in the U of T’s Engineering Science program in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, Goldman became increasingly distracted by his math courses and the engaging, often philosophical, discussions he had in those classes.

He eventually transferred to the Department of Mathematics, where he found lifelong friends, advisors and mentors, who encouraged his intellectual curiosity. Goldman recalls the patient undergraduate and graduate administrators who consoled him and his classmates after tough exams and urged them to stick with their studies, as well as the professors he still keeps in touch with today — including James Colliander, then a professor at the Department of Mathematics, who continues to share life and career advice with him, to this day.

Solving problems, taking chances

He also credits Professor Robert McCann with setting him on the right path.

“I stumbled up to his door, asking if I could work on a math project. He took a chance on me and sent me away with a problem,” says Goldman.

Goldman came back to him with a solution, which they published together. And McCann sent the eager math undergraduate to the U.K. to spend the summer at the Met Office, which forecasts weather for the BBC. Goldman came back to campus ready to give his studies his full attention, and McCann agreed to serve as his advisor for his master’s program.

“He really took me under his wing and had a lot of patience with me,” Goldman says. “His mentorship and guidance were essential in driving my entire career.”

After graduating from U of T, Goldman earned two PhDs in mathematics, from New York University and Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship, as a Herchel Smith Fellow, at the University of Cambridge. Though he appeared headed for a career in academia, he developed a strong interest in data science and applied math, completing stints as a data scientist for the New York Times and Conde Nast, before finding his way to Lyft.

Logical and critical thinking

His training in math and his years studying at U of T continue to serve him in his work and life now.

“Math has made me a better thinker,” he says. “One advantage of studying math is you get used to doing everything the wrong way all the time. You're constantly struggling, and you realize how hard it is to prove something is true and absolute. It humbles you. It teaches you to think logically and critically about problems.”

Goldman has two pieces of advice for aspiring mathematicians.

First, be curious about other fields; don’t be afraid to explore subjects beyond pure mathematics.

“Students should study what they're interested in, but I would encourage math majors to take a few computer science and statistics classes. It might enhance their understanding of mathematical concepts or how they can be applied to other fields.” he says.

Second, focus on the unique set of skills you bring to the table.

“Math happens to be a very competitive field, in which people might associate a lot of their identities with their performance and compare themselves to classmates,” he says. “It’s important to remember math is also a collaborative field, and it requires different types of thinkers. Some scholars are amazing at technical rigour while others might see all the way to the end of a problem but need help with precision. Think about the unique skills you possess and how you can contribute.”

Originally published by the Faculty of Arts & Science