Summer research strengthens math majors

From Left: Milagros Loreto, Brad Halter, Samson Haile, William O’Keefe, Alicia Garduno, Luis Ramirez, Oscar Leon, Thomas Humphries / Marc Studer photos

Six promising math majors can see their possible future this summer as they immerse themselves in a research experience at the University of Washington Bothell.

They were selected for a National Research Experience for Undergraduates Program (NREUP) led by Milagros Loreto, assistant professor of mathematics in the School of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM).

UW Bothell is one of 10 colleges and universities chosen by the Mathematical Association of America for the program, funded through the National Science Foundation. The students each receive $5,500. This REU is designed to reach underrepresented students and strengthen their skills at a time when their math coursework is becoming more abstract.

NREUP students and Milagros Loreto

Having a strong connection to a faculty member in the summer REU can help retain students in higher mathematics courses, the association found. It expects many of those students to continue into graduate school and careers in mathematics.

“This is very important in setting a path for them to do research and in exploring the opportunity to go to graduate school,” said Loreto, principal investigator for the research project. “This will change what they are going to do in the future.”

The project this summer is “Enhancing and further developing merging non-smooth optimization methods.” This field of math involves using algorithms to solve complex, big data problems, Loreto said.

An example of an algorithm application is medical imaging, an area of research for Thomas Humphries, assistant professor in STEM and a faculty mentor on the project. Think about a CT (computed tomography) scan, he said. The machine collects a vast amount of X-ray data. An algorithm then creates the images of body tissue.

Thomas Humphries and students

Introducing undergraduates to this kind of research gives them a leg up on graduate school applications, Humphries said.

“It’s important to have that experience and exposure to what it’s about, because it is very different from taking classes,” he said. “There’s not an answer in the back of the textbook. The professors don’t have the answers necessarily, either.”

The UW Bothell students on the project are juniors and seniors who were suggested by advisers and interviewed by Loreto. They are Reyna Alicia Garduno, Samson Haile, Brad Halter, Oscar Leon, William O’Keefe and Luis Jose Ramirez. As part of the program, they are attending the five-part Research Fundamentals workshop presented by UW Bothell’s Office of Research. Topics include abstract writing and research poster design.

The students also are taking part in some group social activities, such as going on a hike in the Cascades near Gold Bar and watching a World Cup soccer game. Loreto welcomed them together with a dinner at her home featuring pabellón, a dish from her native Venezuela made with rice, beans, beef and plantains.

Milagros Loreto

Ramirez always liked math and computer science, but said the REU provided his first research experience. “I wasn’t aware that mathematics could be this powerful in real-world applications. This is what trying to develop something looks like,” said Ramirez, who is considering graduate school in applied math.

Halter, who enjoys robotics and foresees a career in algorithm-based work, said that he’s learned more about concepts that were introduced in classes. “Seeing them in this context helps me understand what they mean,” said Halter, who is “definitely” thinking of graduate school.

Leon, who hadn’t written a research paper before, said the REU is harder than classes he’s taken. Now, he said, he believes graduate school is a possibility. He once was interested in physical therapy and likes working with his hands so is now thinking about mechanical engineering.

Garduno said the REU is a different experience from the math classes she likes. She has enjoyed applying concepts and more in-depth learning. Although she wants to work first and would like to become an actuary, the experience could help her decide on graduate school.

NREUP students

Haile, a double major in Mathematics and Applied Computing, brought his coding knowledge to the research. He hadn’t been thinking about graduate school. “Now it’s something on the table for me,” he said, noting that it would probably be in applied computing.

O’Keefe was originally interested in nursing. He found he liked math analysis classes better because he’s interested in “why stuff works.” Now he is more positive about graduate school, after seeing what to expect from research.

As part of the REU, students learn to use MATLAB, a software tool used by engineers and scientists, and LaTeX, a document system. Loreto expects the students to submit at least two papers to journals and to present their work at local conferences and at the Joint Mathematics Meeting, the largest annual gathering of mathematicians in the United States.

The University is also hosting another REU this summer in biomedical technology, led by Tadesse Ghirmai, associate professor in the School of STEM.

Loreto, who has taught math classes at UW Bothell since 2014, was a faculty mentor the past three summers for another National Science Foundation-funded math REU led by Professors Jennifer McLoud-Mann and Casey Mann. Mann gave a talk to this summer’s math REU. The students also heard from UW Bothell graduate Morgan Ascanio, a former REU student who went on to receive a master’s in mathematics from Syracuse University. She now is a corporate finance actuarial intern at Symetra, an insurance company based in Bellevue, Washington.

This eight-week math REU wraps up Aug. 3 with a presentation to faculty. Loreto plans to apply for another REU next summer.

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