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Week of 14 March 2003· Vol. VI, No. 24

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It all adds up
Math symposium highlights undergrad research from around Northeast

By David J. Craig

Tiffany Caufield had planned for years to become a high school teacher. But last year the SED sophomore realized that her heart was in research.

“Just as I was finishing up my required math courses, I found myself getting really excited by them,” says Caufield (CAS’04), who switched her major to mathematics last November and now plans to become a professor. “I would have been so depressed if I wasn’t doing math anymore.”

Today, Caufield is among a growing number of undergraduates nationwide participating in independent math research that a few years ago was considered appropriate only for students at the graduate level and beyond. But increasingly educators are encouraging undergraduates to become involved in math research in order to expose them to the creative and imaginative aspects of the discipline.

Several of BU’s brightest math students, including Caufield, will showcase their research on Saturday, March 22, at the first Research by Undergraduates in Mathematics Boston University Symposium (RUMBUS). Students from 24 colleges and 6 local high schools are expected to attend the symposium, which will include a poster session presenting the independent projects of about a dozen undergraduates from BU, Holy Cross, SUNY-Genesco, Fairfield University, and the University of Scranton. The researchers also will give a brief talk about their work.

Tiffany Caufield (CAS'04) will participate in a math symposium at BU on March 22 that she co-organized to showcase the research of undergraduate math majors. Photo by Vernon Doucette


Tiffany Caufield (CAS’04) will participate in a math symposium at BU on March 22 that she co-organized to showcase the research of undergraduate math majors. Photo by Vernon Doucette


In addition to Caufield, who helped organize RUMBUS, BU participants include Cecilia Busuioc (CAS’03, GRS’03), Pradeep Mouli (CAS’05), Tiffany Psemeneki (CAS’04), Yakov Shapiro (CAS’03), and Melissa Vellela (CAS’03). The symposium is sponsored by the CAS math department’s Undergraduate Mathematics Association.

“I want to foster an exchange of ideas among the students and also to help them learn to talk about their work, which is something that is generally not taught enough in the classroom,” says event coordinator Emma Previato, a CAS professor of mathematics, who hopes to make RUMBUS an annual event. Another objective of the symposium, she says, is to inspire high school students to pursue advanced studies in math.

For Shapiro, a senior who assisted a BU postdoctoral math researcher two years ago and already is involved in his own graduate-level research, discussing his work with his undergraduate peers is particularly challenging because it is so advanced and specialized. The research he will present at the symposium involves complex dynamical systems — specifically, describing the patterns that form when quadratic functions are applied to complex numbers repeatedly. “I often feel that my research is too complicated to explain because it’s so abstract, but I like talking about it, and it’s very satisfying to help someone understand what it’s all about,” says Shapiro, who intends to become a theoretical physicist. “You then feel that it has something to do with reality.”

Caufield recently developed an algorithm to map the path of a particle bouncing endlessly within a closed elliptical curve. She says that listening to students describe their research often gives her ideas for her own. “You always hear about theories that apply to your work that you’re weren’t familiar with,” she says. “It’s energizing, and that’s how new math is born.”
The symposium also will include two panel discussions, the first focusing on the best ways for undergraduates to become involved in research, how to prepare for graduate school, and how to get involved in extracurricular math-related activities. It will feature Frank Ford, a mathematics professor at Providence College, Sarah Mabrouk, a mathematics professor at Framingham State College, Sharon Prado, executive director of BU’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and director of BU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, and Lee Stemkoski, a math professor at Dartmouth College. Paul Blanchard, a CAS associate professor of mathematics, and David Vogan, an MIT mathematics professor, will participate in a second panel focusing on the changing nature of mathematics as an academic discipline and careers in the field.

In addition, the symposium will include a keynote presentation, entitled Soap Bubbles and Mathematics, by Frank Morgan, a Williams College mathematics professor. An internationally recognized expert in geometric measure theory, minimal surfaces, and calculus of variations, Morgan is expected to focus on the mathematical principles involved in how bubbles attach to one another.

“Dr. Morgan is a wonderful speaker who is extremely passionate about encouraging people to learn how to communicate about mathematics,” says Previato. “Audience members at any mathematical level, from freshman calculus to faculty, will enjoy his presentation.”

For more information, visit http://math.bu.edu/people/RUMBUS03.


13 March 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations