Using Mathematics and Computers To Understand the World

November 1, 2006

New grant exposes undergraduates at Rensselaer and Howard to applied research

Troy, N.Y. — Undergraduate students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Howard University will now have a chance to pursue research at the intersection of mathematics and computational science, thanks to a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation. With the new award, a team of Rensselaer professors will implement a program to expose mathematics students to problems with important applications in a range of fields, from medicine to ecology. 

“We are developing an innovative program that will help students use mathematics and computers to understand the world,” said Mark Holmes, professor of mathematical sciences at Rensselaer and principal investigator for the project. “The modern world is complex. Our goal is to teach these students about the power of mathematics, and how to harness that power to solve problems in science and engineering.”

Potential projects include examining connections between millions of neurons in the brain; understanding the way circadian rhythms regulate the human sleep cycle; and designing optical materials that can bend light in such a way as to make an object appear invisible.

The project is part of NSF’s new Computational Science Training for Undergraduates in the Mathematical Sciences (CSUMS) program, which is designed to enhance computational aspects of the education of undergraduate students in the mathematical sciences. One goal is to attract students with mathematical skills to fields that are not traditionally strong in this area, such as the biological sciences.

Beginning in January 2007, Rensselaer will offer a new undergraduate course in emerging research problems in mathematics in conjunction with an interdisciplinary undergraduate seminar. The seminar will feature prominent speakers from academia, industry, and national laboratories. Eight Rensselaer students will be chosen from this course to receive one year of financial support. In addition, two students from Howard University will be selected to spend a year in residence at Rensselaer. The grant will support 50 undergraduates over a span of five years, according to Holmes.

The students will visit laboratories and companies around the country as part of the program, and they also will go to local high schools to demonstrate the interesting opportunities that can arise from a degree in mathematics.

But the heart of the program is applied research. “We have a number of carefully chosen projects ready for the students to investigate, each involving differential equations that arise in a variety of applications from fields including fluid mechanics, biology, combustion, and nonlinear optics,” Holmes said. 

Four other members of the Rensselaer Mathematical Sciences faculty will be working with Holmes to develop the program: Isom Herron, Gregor Kovacic, Peter Kramer, and Victor Roytburd. The grant also will support one full-time teaching assistant during the academic year and a quarter-time administrative assistant during the summer.

Contact: Jason Gorss
Phone: (518) 276-6098

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