On the poets and quants spectrum, Babson College’s Nathan Karst tilts heavily to the quant side. After picking up degrees in engineering, Karst went on to earn a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Cornell. Now, Karst teaches the Data Exploration and Analytics and Business Intelligence, Analytics, and Visualization courses to MBAs at Babson. With nearly 300 Google Scholar citations, Karst, 35, is already an influential and deft researcher. He received nearly two-dozen nominations from administrators, faculty members, and students. But perhaps what put him over the edge and onto this year’s list was the feedback received from students to put complex problems and theories into understandable language and concepts.
“Nathan Karst provides Babson students with cutting edge courses based on his dynamic applied mathematics research, his first-rate coding skills, and his wonderful network of alumni working in the analytics industry, Rick Clearly, the Weissman Professor of Business Analytics at Babson College said in his nomination of Karst. “His enthusiasm for both students and topics makes his courses popular at every level from undergraduate requirements to graduate electives. In one recent semester, he helped lead undergraduate researchers who published a paper in a top discrete mathematics journal, while at the same time delivering an on-line graduate core course in our Master’s program in Business Analytics. This remarkable versatility is essential in allowing a relatively small group of quantitative methods faculty to deliver analytics across the curriculum, and his wide-ranging research raises Babson’s profile in communities including discrete math, classical applied math, data analytics, and statistics education. I have mentored dozens of faculty in my career, and Nathan ranks at the head of the class.”
Outside of the classroom, Karst says he’s an avid cook and baker. He also loves reading, always has a coding side-project or two, and stays active by alternating between running, weightlifting, and yoga.
Associate Professor of Applied Mathematics
Current age: 35
At current institution since what year? 2011
Education: BS in Electrical Engineering, F.W. Olin College of Engineering, 2007; Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics, Cornell University, 2011
List of MBA courses you currently teach: Data Exploration and Analytics; Business Intelligence, Analytics, and Visualization
TELL US ABOUT YOUR LIFE AS A PROFESSOR
I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I interviewed at Babson, actually. I was having a hard time deciding between academia and industry, and I had just completed an internship that had sent me farther down the path leading to the latter. But when I came to Babson, I had a really strong feeling that it was a place I could be happy both with and in my job. Turns out that intuition was good.
What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?
I use mathematical models to predict the behavior of a wide range of physical systems, ranging from how blood flows through the microvasculature to how landscapes accept and release water. My colleagues and I have discovered that even very simple capillary networks can exhibit surprisingly complex behaviors, water managers often grossly underestimate the amount of sediment building up behind a dam, and soil fungi can form self-sustaining whirl patterns visible by aerial reconnaissance. The world is full of interesting math.
If I weren’t a business school professor… I would be doing machine learning research in industry – they have such interesting problems lying around. The scale of data that these organizations work with generally isn’t at all what we deal with in academia, and I think being driven to focus on only the most timely, relevant, and impactful ideas would be a nice change of pace from the more long term focus in academics.
What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?
I bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the classroom. I have a real passion for the material I teach, and I try my best to make sure that shines through. I spend a lot of my time advising students, both informally on side projects students are working on more formally through independent studies and research opportunities.
One word that describes my first time teaching: Exhilarating!
Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor:
I wish someone along the way would’ve told me this was such a great career option. I sort of just stumbled into the whole thing. I think the b-school route is just not on the radar for a lot of technical folks, and yet you can have a really fulfilling career teaching applied content to bright students alongside wonderful colleagues. What’s not to love about that?
Professor I most admire and why:
My colleague Denise Troxell. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone so dedicated to getting it right. She just cares so much about her students, her teaching, and her colleagues. Whenever I think about cutting a corner, a little part of my brain lights up and says “what would Denise think about that?” and I get back on the right track.
What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?
I never would’ve guessed it, but I love selling math. When you’re teaching a bunch of mathematicians or scientists or engineers, they’re already in the tank – they already understand that this stuff is important and useful, even if it’s not their favorite thing in the world. But with business students, there’s a step at the beginning where you’re really motivating why in the world the students should give the time of day to a thing you’ve dedicated your life. As it turns out, I enjoy that immensely; I find it really satisfying to get people to appreciate something that I enjoy so much.
What is most challenging?
I think the biggest challenge is also one of the things I enjoy the most: developing strong integrations across the curriculum. Things can be really insular in a normal math department; maybe you talk to the computer scientists or some physical sciences folks, but that’s probably it. At Babson, I’ve worked with colleagues from a wide range of disciplines to create content that really sings for students. The challenge is that these have to be continually refreshed in order to stay relevant – if you’re standing still, you’re falling behind.
In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Curious
In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Litigious – not literally, but figuratively
When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Tough but fair.
LIFE OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM
What are your hobbies?
I’m an avid cook and baker, love reading (science fiction in particular), always have a coding side project or two kicking around, and alternate between running, weightlifting, and yoga.
How will you spend your summer?
I’ll likely spend time doing research, hiking, and puttering around at our cabin in Maine.
Favorite place(s) to vacation:
As a transplant from the southern US, I’m still fascinated by New England – anywhere on the coast or mountains here is an easy “yes” in my book.
The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Leguin
Dune, Frank Herbert
The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemison
Diaspora, Greg Egan
What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much?
I’ve really been enjoying Better Call Saul recently. It’s a spin-off of Breaking Bad, and so most people watching know how the story ends, at least in broad strokes. But somehow that’s also what makes it so compelling: it’s really the journey, not the destination, that holds all the value. Also, Vince Gilligan is amazing at composing a scene.
What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why?
In alphabetic order: Daft Punk, Dvorak, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Lizzo, Mahler, Tame Impala, Tchaikovsky
THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS
If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… Teaching centered on themes rather than departments, learning centered on experiences rather than content, and widespread collaboration to make it all happen.
In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… Decentralizing authority, empowering individual actors, and getting serious about dealing with a landscape whose evolution is accelerating.
I’m grateful for… a really unbelievable sequence of mentors, starting in early adulthood and continuing through the present. People like Mike and Anita Karst, Ben Cook, John Geddes, Sarah Adams, Denise Troxell, and Rick Cleary have made all the difference in the world.
Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say:
“Never before have I had a professor be so dedicated to his students…There was never a time when he was not available to assist, answer questions or provide guidance. Most importantly, his willing to assist always was sincere and genuine. You knew he cared. In return, you wanted to give your best and not let him down. Hell of a thing to garner that level of respect. Karst is as good as they come.” Todd Mattuchio, student
“Professor Karst’s passion for the material he teaches is evident from the very first lecture you attend to the last. His teaching style coupled with his dedication to student growth and understanding make learning difficult material the best it can be. He provides by far one of the most well organized and structured learning environments I’ve ever had and his good nature and friendly demeanor make learning enjoyable.” – Student