Nebraska Global reunites two grads

Josh Brown Kramer and Lucas Sabalka

Math graduates Josh Brown Kramer (left) and Lucas Sabalka now work together at Nebraska Global in the Haymarket. The “N” they are standing on is from the old turf on Memorial Stadium that was replaced in 2013. (LINDSAY AUGUSTYN/UNL CSMCE)

They even took the “History of China” together.

Nebraska alumni, friends and colleagues Josh Brown Kramer and Lucas Sabalka have crossed paths several times over the past two decades.

After meeting at Lincoln Northeast High School, Brown Kramer and Sabalka both graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and computer science, even taking a history course together along the way; went on to earn Ph.D.s in mathematics at separate institutions; collaborated on research as faculty; and, as of May 2013, both work in Lincoln at Nebraska Global as applied mathematicians.

The career potential at Nebraska Global was the driving factor behind both of their returns to the state, as well as being closer to their families in Lincoln.

“If it wasn’t for Nebraska Global, I would probably still be teaching at Illinois Wesleyan,” said Brown Kramer, who was an assistant professor at Illinois Wesleyan from 2007 to 2011. “I think there is a fairly unique mix at Nebraska Global. They are working on problems where they need someone who has a background in mathematics and a strong background in problem solving, and they are also doing interesting things. Nebraska Global is doing something special.”

Nebraska Global, which started in 2009, is a venture capital firm that focuses on building a sustainable tech environment by establishing software businesses within the state. Brown Kramer knew one of its employees and wished to get back into more of a research environment. He joined the team in 2011, after asking Sabalka for his advice.

With Brown Kramer established at Nebraska Global, Sabalka consulted for the company in the summer of 2012, getting a feel for the company. In the fall, Sabalka started a tenure-track position at Saint Louis University, but after one year living in St. Louis, he and his wife decided they didn’t enjoy living there. When Sabalka got an offer from Nebraska Global in 2013, he took it.

Presently, Brown Kramer and Sabalka work on computer vision applications with two other Nebraska Global employees.

“These are applications where we are making a computer see,” Brown Kramer said. “The first project I did before Lucas came on board was called Elite Form, which is a weightlifting product. There is a camera mounted to a weight rack and you get in and do squats or bench presses, and it watches what you are doing and calculates the speed of your reps. It’s also counting them and keeping track of the power you have generated. That’s the core algorithm that I helped put together as part of a small research team. Another team put together the reporting aspect of it. It will synch up on a network so a coach can go to a website and look at his team and see how they’ve been improving in terms of their power generation. The Husker football team uses it. Several teams around the country have bought it. It’s being used, and it’s doing well.”

The color RGB camera in this technology is based on a depth camera and is the same camera used in the Xbox Kinect.

“The reason Nebraska Global needs mathematicians [on these projects] is because you’re talking about color and you’re talking about depth and time, so you’ve got this geometry in five-dimensional space that you have to try and analyze and pick out the important objects,” Sabalka said.

But, their job is about much more than just mathematics.

“Problem solving has been the biggest asset that we’ve brought to the company. There’s matrix theory that has to be done in order to do manipulations in 3D space that probably Lucas and I are the only ones at Nebraska Global who could do it reliably. Other than that, we’re not strictly doing stuff that we learned in math class,” Brown Kramer said. “Another asset we bring is the ability to go through and digest research papers and learn quickly what the state-of-the-art [technology] is and what other people have done. Now we’re working on something called Health Ventures, and we’re applying this computer vision technology to the healthcare industry.”

While Sabalka tried out working at Nebraska Global many years after his college graduation, he strongly recommends that math undergraduates try to find opportunities in the field they are potentially considering as a career, including research experiences and internships.

“When you are an undergraduate, you can really get a lot of valuable experience in a short amount of time,” he said. “People are looking for short, three-month stints where you can get a feel for them and they can get a feel for you, and you can really know if that’s what you want to do for the rest of your life.”

Born in California, Brown Kramer moved to Lincoln in 1993. After graduating from Northeast, he graduated from UNL with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science in 2001. He then went on to earn his Ph.D. at UNL in mathematics in 2007 and became an assistant professor at Illinois Wesleyan University before joining Nebraska Global. Brown Kramer and his wife, Carolyn, married in 2002 and have two sons, Liam and Alex. Carolyn earned her Ph.D. in psychology from UNL in 2009.

Sabalka, who was born and raised in Lincoln, graduated from Northeast and then earned his bachelor’s degree from UNL in mathematics, computer science and history, with minors in physics and psychology, in 2002. He received his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2006. He did a postdoc at the University of California, Davis from 2006 to 2008. In 2009, he began another postdoc at Binghamton University in New York, to be at the school where his wife, Stacie, is working on her Ph.D. He then got a tenure-track professorship at Saint Louis University in 2012 and came to Nebraska Global in May 2013.

In 2008 and 2009, when Sabalka was a postdoc and Brown Kramer was at Illinois Wesleyan, the two did collaborate on two research papers, one in combinatorics and one in robot navigation.

Both Brown Kramer and Sabalka heeded the advice of several UNL mathematics professors in their decision making during their academic careers.

“Gordon Woodward was fantastic. He gave me lots of great advice. I would go to him all of the time. He pushed me toward participating in the MASS [Mathematics Advanced Study Seminars] program at Penn State. Because of him and the Penn State program, I was done with all of my core math courses by the end of my third semester,” Sabalka said. “I also wrote an undergraduate honors thesis with Susan Hermiller and John Meakin, who were fantastic advisers. Every week, or every other week, for two years I would meet with them. Gordon set all of that up. He organized and directed my career and helped me get where I am.”

They both also credited Judy Walker’s course on group theory as formative to their careers.

“My favorite professor was Judy Walker,” said Brown Kramer, who also still keeps in contact with his thesis adviser Jamie Radcliffe. “I think it was my sophomore year I took her course in group theory, and it was the first time I had to do hard-core proofs and got to see the abstraction of mathematics, and I really loved it. After taking that course, that’s when I really decided that I was going to be a math major.”

Sabalka added, “Eventually I went into my specialty as a mathematician in geometric group theory so that course certainly informed my eventual career.”

Sabalka also was influenced early on by UNL lecturer and former Northeast math teacher Bill Rogge, who was the mentor to the high school’s math club of which both he and Brown Kramer were members.

“Bill was my inspiration. He really catalyzed my love of math and my pursuit of a mathematics career. I knew when I was going from high school to college that I would get a math major. I also had some scholarships from UNL Math Day, so that was a no-brainer,” Sabalka said.

Keeping in contact with each other and UNL professors over the years has also allowed them to make their academic and career decisions with confidence.

“You should seek the advice of people whose opinion you respect and trust, and listen to it,” Brown Kramer said, “rather than try to make all of these decisions on your own.”

– Lindsay Augustyn