Solving the Big, Big Problems

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REU students complete a complex mathematical equation on the chalkboard.Several weeks into the program, Oliver seemed to be fulfilling that goal.

"Over the first few weeks, we have had a crash course in extensions of linear algebra, quantum mechanics and probability, and an introduction into the problems associated with quantum information theory. We are starting to move into researching in the hopes of answering the unknown and discovering new theories and applications. While it was great to obtain all the information we have had thrown at us recently, I think we are all really excited to start breaking some new ground and hopefully doing something that will be of significant benefit to others," he says.

Some students begin pursuing their undergraduate degree in mathematics thinking that the only career it can lead to is teaching. Through this REU program, students learn there are other options including research, or, as Manney hopes, the skills to prepare her for a career in the business field. The REU experience also allows them to test their career choices before earning their degrees.

"The experience for the undergrads has the goal of encouraging them to go for graduate work and Ph.D.s," says Graham. "We also hope to get publishable research from the students."

Wilce agrees that the REU has an aim of inspiring students to further education: "It will steer students like this toward graduate study. It provides an opportunity to undergraduates at smaller institutions they might not have otherwise. And the goal of the NSF is to increase the workforce in the sciences."

Hosting the REU program also benefits Susquehanna's mathematics department. Bringing students and faculty to Susquehanna from across the country puts the department on the national map, Clark says, which will also make the school and program more attractive to prospective students. And looking through the list of 60 REU participants, Susquehanna is in the company of such schools as Williams College, Cornell University, Lafayette College and the College of William and Mary, as well as larger research institutions.

"It's great to see such a beneficial program being implemented here at SU; hopefully it can continue so that this group along with others to follow can solve or make significant progress on the research problems they encounter," says Manney.

 

WHILE HOSTING an REU program is a new venture for the mathematics department, Susquehanna students have participated in REUs elsewhere for many years. Some of these include astronomy REUs at Kitt Peak National Observatory and SUNY–Stony Brook, one in industrial mathematics and statistics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, one at the Rice Quantum Institute in Texas and one on the study of eastern bluebirds at William and Mary.

This summer, Ashley Thompson '09, a biology major from Taylor, Pa., is working at the West Texas A&M University REU site, studying the effects of atrazine, a widely used herbicide, on phytoplankton (algae) that use photosynthesis as their energy source. Atrazine is widely used on crop fields in the Southwest to prevent weed growth. It is highly effective at preventing the growth; the downside is its runoff into lakes and streams.

Thompson is also studying shifts in the phytoplankton community that lead to algal bloom, which has been known to kill fish. In the Southwest, fish kills are often caused by golden algae blooms that produce toxins. She also will examine a possible connection between these blooms and the concentration of atrazine in the water where known fish kills have occurred.

Thompson applied to several different REU sites across the country but decided on the West Texas A&M site because of its connection to her interests and work on the SU campus.

"It was important for me to work at a site that valued the environment and would include an environmental issue in my summer research," she says. "At SU I currently work on the Centralia project, and I also enjoy occasionally helping Dr. [Jack] Holt with his acid mine drainage project. I enjoy both of these projects very much, and they definitely tie in with my ecological research at West Texas A&M."

Thompson says her experience also helped prepare her for future study, a key NSF goal for the REU program.

"After graduation I plan on attending graduate school to earn my Ph.D. in environmental microbiology or microbial limnology. I feel that my research and time spent in Texas will challenge me as a scientist and help to prepare me for graduate school," she says. "While at West Texas A&M, I have been able to design my own real-world experiment and propose a hypothesis, while remembering I only have $500 and 10 weeks. It's sort of the ‘Trading Spaces' of the science world."

 

Jennifer Botchie '99 ia a contributing writer and coach of cheerleading at Susquehanna.

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