Mason Hosts NSF Student Research Experience in Mathematics
By Catherine Probst
Determining how aneurysms rupture, analyzing financial market models, creating a simulation of an aircraft wing—these are just a few examples of projects that undergraduate students from around the country worked on this summer at Mason.
The students were part of a multidisciplinary undergraduate research program, formally called a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). Funded by the National Science Foundation, the program was hosted by Mason’s Department of Mathematical Sciences and ran from June 4 through August 3.
The goal of the nine-week program was to educate students about how mathematics can be used to solve real-world problems in fields such as engineering, science, medicine, and education. The program also helped K-12 math teachers develop their problem-solving and research skills, which will translate into more effective teaching in the classroom.
“There is a great need in this nation to increase the next generation of undergraduate students in the STEM workforce,” says Padmanabhan Seshaiyer, professor of mathematical sciences and director of the REU program. “By introducing students to the various applications of mathematics and raising their awareness of how these applications apply to so many different areas, we hope to inspire more students to pursue careers in these fields.”
After a rigorous application process, 11 college juniors and seniors and two teachers were paired with Mason researchers and spent the bulk of their time working on a project related to the theme of this year’s program: mathematical and computational modeling of biological and bio-inspired engineering systems.
Students spent the first few weeks of the program learning about the latest software programs, such as MATLAB and LaTeX, as well as various research techniques. They also heard from several Mason researchers in engineering, physics, and computational sciences about projects they’re working on.
“We didn’t always understand the specifics of each research project, but it was still very interesting to see how the researchers are using mathematics in an everyday setting to solve common problems,” says Alissa Stafford, a math and psychology major at the University of Maryland.
For their research projects, students chose from three focus areas: modeling, analysis, and simulation; creating new and building upon existing mathematics techniques; or using current software to create interactive computer-based demonstrations. The students were also required to write a scientific and technical research paper.
Students met weekly with faculty advisors to discuss their work and next steps. In addition to having unlimited access to computer labs and library facilities to conduct research, the students relied heavily on the expertise of four Mason graduate students who served as mentors.
Topics of the student research projects ran the gamut.
John Ensley, an applied mathematics and computer science major at Brown University, worked with math professors Harbir Lamba and Tim Sauer on developing a method of estimating global temperatures over the past several centuries by using tree ring data.
On another project, Marissa Soucy, a mathematics and economics major at Simmons College, worked with Seshaiyer on an interactive e-textbook in which students can use a variety of numerical methods to discover differential equations and solutions to boundary value problems.
George Lytle, a mathematics major at Asbury University, worked with Seshaiyer and Jeng Lin, associate professor of mathematical sciences, to determine the behavior and create a visualization of the progression of waves, such as a tsunami moving across the open ocean.
For Mimi Corcoran, a high school math teacher at Highland School in Warrenton, Virginia, and a PhD student in Mason’s Mathematics Education Program, the experience was quite different. She worked with Seshaiyer on investigating connections between calculus and statistics. Corcoran plans to apply this knowledge in her classroom.
When the students weren’t working on their research projects, they learned more about careers available in the mathematics field, as well as ethical issues involved in research. They also visited the offices of the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
The program culminated with the students presenting their projects and papers to their peers and math faculty. Many of the students hope to have the opportunity to present their research at conferences throughout the year.
“The experience and skills the REU program provides to students is invaluable,” says Seshaiyer. “For those students who choose to pursue graduate school, the knowledge they have gained through this program will give them a leg up on their peers, as well as greatly prepare them for the real world.”
This article originally appeared on the university’s News site.