Benefits Add Up for Undergrads in School of Mathematics REU Program

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Undergraduate students stay busy studying for their majors, but they do not always get a chance to work on research projects – tasks that will dominate their lives if they go to graduate school. So how important is it for undergraduates to get that early shot at research?

For Korynn Claiborne, doing undergraduate research is the difference between learning advanced mathematics concepts in a classroom and applying them in real life. “This helps so much because you actually see the math at work,” says Claiborne, a senior at Alabama State University.

Claiborne is part of the School of Mathematics’ 2017 Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. She presented her work during a July 12 poster session with 19 other students. Claiborne says the eight weeks she spent researching her project in the Skiles Classroom Building confirmed her love of math.

That outcome serves as priceless validation of the program, says School of Mathematics Chair Rachel Kuske. “The undergrads get exposed to more open-ended problems and new areas of math,” Kuske says. “They also learn soft skills important in research. How do you talk about research? How do you work within a group? How is research different from classwork?”

REU is an eight-week summer program funded by the National Science Foundation to give undergraduates a taste of high-level, real-world research.

The 2015 and 2016 REU classes were funded in partnership with the school’s Interdisciplinary Mathematics Preparation and Career Training (IMPACT) program, a postdoctoral-training initiative. For the 2017 program, support from the College of Sciences boosted participation, resulting in the largest group of students in the school’s 16-year history of REUs. Students from Georgia Tech and other Georgia colleges, plus universities in Alabama, California, Virginia, Michigan, and Massachusetts took part.

Ian Katz had opportunities to work on research while an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, but didn’t take them. He found out about Tech’s program after an exchange of emails with School of Mathematics Professor Dan Margalit and was able to enroll at the last minute. Now Katz says he has a chance to fill the research gaps in his résumé and focus on starting graduate school at Tech.

“I didn’t even know what I wanted to do coming into grad school,” Katz says. He was interested in topology, the study of shapes and how they can be manipulated without breaking or tearing them. “REU gave me a really in-depth idea of what topology is about.”

Claiborne opted to work on the Lorenz system, equations used in atmospheric science prediction and weather modeling. “There’s a lot of computational mathematics, and that’s what I enjoy,” she says.

Two postdoctoral fellows, Michael Northington and Andre Souza, shared their expertise in research and presentation skills with Claiborne. “It gives the postdocs good experience in training and mentoring as well, so it helps everybody,” Kuske says.

Kuske adds that the program includes a lot of Atlanta-area students, which she is happy to see. She hopes to increase the local talent stream by seeking additional funding, along with more partnerships with local colleges.

“It’s more important these days, when students are applying to graduate school or a job, to be able to say they worked on a research team, or gave a presentation or poster session, or went to this or that conference,” Kuske says, “Students need a broad range of experiences to pursue whatever careers they choose.”



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    Renay San Miguel
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