Solving the Big, Big Problems
To enhance the REU experience for the students, other experts in the field were invited to Susquehanna to take part in the research. Two of them — Howard Barnum of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Christopher Fuchs of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada — were part of the discussion this summer morning. Both are renowned experts in the field of quantum information theory, and Clark and Graham say their willingness to participate in the REU was a key factor in helping Susquehanna gain the grant.
The REU journey began almost a year ago, as it took nearly six months just to prepare the grant application. NSF received 221 applications for this summer's REUs, and from there, narrowed the field for further review by a panel. In all, 60 colleges and universities were granted REUs.
Once Susquehanna was chosen for an REU, the task at hand was to select the nine students. Three slots went to Susquehanna students, with the remaining six going to students from Boston University, Haverford College, West Chester University, Grinnell College, Harvey Mudd College, and Lewis and Clark College.
"Our goal is to provide research opportunities for students who wouldn't otherwise have them," says Clark. But with a limited number of slots, competition was intense. To qualify, students had to provide their transcripts, a list of their college mathematics courses and texts they've used, letters of recommendation from their faculty and a one-page personal statement discussing their desire to participate in the program.
Graham says that next year the department anticipates receiving approximately 200 applications for these nine opportunities.
WHAT ATTRACTS these students to this research and to spending a good portion of their summer inside a classroom solving complex mathematical equations instead of outside enjoying the fun and sun like many of their peers? There are tangible benefits — each participant is paid a weekly stipend, plus room, board and travel, and support is available to attend and present at a conference. But the intangible is just as attractive.
"I wanted to participate in the research to learn more about what math research is actually all about, like how one would go about forming math research questions and seeking answers," says Catarina Manney '10, a mathematics major from Elysburg, Pa.
Casey Oliver '10, of State College, Pa., says he wanted to participate because he felt it would give him valuable experience while at the same time allowing him to take a look at several of his areas of interest.
"As a mathematics and physics double major, I realize that this experience will allow me to get a feel for a career path in researching, which is very helpful to me as I try to discern what I am called to do for an occupation," Oliver says. "In addition, I am able to work closely with a number of distinguished professors and learn a great deal. Normally you have to pay to get a great education like this, so to be paid to learn and to work in something I am interested in is a truly awesome opportunity."
Undergraduate guests of Susquehanna — like Philipp Gaebler, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native who is a student at Harvey Mudd College in California — found themselves compelled to spend weeks away from home because they were attracted by the research topic and the opportunities it presented. "Since quantum physics is the field I love, it stood out," says Gaebler. "Plus, my attention was brought to it by a professor whom I admire. It's a good program with excellent faculty and material, and I'm glad for the opportunity to be here."
Clark hopes that, for the Susquehanna students in particular, the experience will help broaden their horizons by exposing them to more advanced mathematics than they have studied to date.
"It gives them a chance to work with peers who are really talented," she says. "We're hoping this will get people excited about the field a little more."