Math in the Mountains
Summer Research Program Draws Students from Across the U.S.
Asheville is a tourist destination for many good reasons. But for eight students who have come here this summer from campuses spread across the country, Asheville’s main attraction is something you won’t find in any travel guide—the pursuit of mathematical discovery.
UNC Asheville’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) was designed by Associate Professor Patrick Bahls and is now in its fifth summer.
Bahls says the program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is making a name for itself “as one that provides students with authentic research experience and flexibility in selecting problems.” Almost 300 students from around the country applied for the eight slots available this summer. Students from four-year colleges and universities who might not have undergraduate research opportunities on their home campuses receive preference.
Spencer Brooks of Amherst College in Massachusetts and Tony Nguyen of Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., both juniors, were two of those selected. Under Bahls’ tutelage, the two have worked together on a research problem involving graph theory.
Nguyen said he wanted a chance to immerse himself in math research as well as get a taste of living in the mountain region. Brooks was drawn to how the program is designed. “You work directly with faculty, not grad students,” said Brooks. “You have the freedom to choose your problem and you have ownership of your problem. I know from other students in Amherst that this isn’t true in every REU program. And Asheville is one of the coolest cities I’ve ever been to. I love it here.”
While students have the chance to choose their research problem, the program is structured and rigorous. “The first two weeks are spent in intensive seminars and face-to-face meetings,” said Bahls, “so students can learn the background, techniques, theorems and ideas they’ll need for the research.” Then the students form teams and choose their problems from among 20 or so selected by the UNC Asheville math faculty. “Sometimes, we suspect we know what the answer is,” said Bahls, “but these are open problems—original research problems where the answers are unknown.”
This summer, the students divided into four pairs—pairs that have to work very closely for at least 40 hours a week. “We work in the same room probably eight or nine hours a day,” said Michaela Stone, a senior at Alfred University, nodding to her teammate, Greg Ferrin, a rising senior from Western Carolina University. “It’s very collaborative,” said Stone, “but our backgrounds mathematically are very different; we don’t look at things the same way, so that helps. It’s also not nine hours non-stop because frankly, there’s too much to do in Asheville to sit in a room for nine hours.”
After five weeks of work on their problem, which involves independence polynomials, Stone and Ferrin are almost ready to begin early drafts of a journal article. They plan to continue their work in the fall, collaborating long-distance. In the meantime, the pair will present their findings at the Mathematics Association of America’s Mathfest conference in August.
Bahls also continues to work with each summer’s REU students long after the program ends. He is currently working with three teams from the summer 2010 program on revising journal articles for submission. Journal articles, he said, “are not an explicit goal of the program, but it is nice when that happens.”
UNC Asheville’s REU program in mathematics is funded through the summer of 2012 by the NSF. Bahls is hoping that the reputation of UNC Asheville’s REU will help gain the program another three-year funding cycle. Testimony from this year’s students can only help his case. “I’m a double major—mathematics and education,” said Stone. “This was a chance for me to see what it would be like to really do math as opposed to teaching math. It is really enticing. It is an absolute joy to be here.”
You have the freedom to choose your problem and you have ownership of your problem. I know from other students in Amherst that this isn’t true in every REU program. And Asheville is one of the coolest cities I’ve ever been to. I love it here.”
—Spencer Brooks of Amherst College in Massachusetts