Grant Helps Train Students in Computational Mathematics Research

Posted: June 12, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Catherine Ferraro

As the use of computational mathematics becomes crucial to solving problems in every field, including those of national security and public health, the need for graduates trained in this discipline is growing rapidly.

Mason is taking necessary steps to ensure its students are prepared to enter this growing field by creating a new BS in Computational and Data Sciences in the College of Science. In addition, a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant enabled the Department of Computational and Data Sciences and the Department of Mathematical Sciences to begin a new mentorship program in May 2007 for undergraduate mathematics students. The program is called Undergraduate Research in Computational Mathematics (URCM).

The objective of the program is to enhance undergraduate research experiences in the mathematical and computational sciences. One of the ways in which this is accomplished is through helping students who have learned computational mathematics fundamentals transition into a position where they can contribute to research projects.

The NSF’s Computational Science Training for Undergraduates in Mathematical Sciences initiative awarded the grant to Mason in August 2006. Mason is one of only five universities nationwide to receive the grant, which has an anticipated value of $1,000,000 over five years.

“There have been several positive effects for the university and students,” says John Wallin, associate professor in the Department of Computational and Data Sciences. “The grant promotes cooperation between departments and undergraduate research at the university, and helps students develop professionally.”

Each year throughout the five-year grant, a cohort of undergraduate mathematics majors will be chosen to participate in the program. The first cohort began last summer and was composed of nine students. This particular cohort’s theme, was numerical partial differential equations. Future themes might include optimization, image processing or data analysis, Wallin says.

Students are required to take several courses throughout the academic year that relate to the theme and give them experience in public speaking, writing and understanding their research topics better. In addition, students work with individual mentors on a particular research project.

Fred Iacoletti, a student in the first cohort, graduated from Mason in May and is now pursuing a PhD in mathematics at Texas A&M University.

“Prior to the start of the program I had very little experience of research in computational mathematics,” says Iacoletti. “The experience really helped me learn how the research was done and how much patience it requires. I don’t think I would be at Texas A&M University if it wasn’t for the program.”

Some of the first cohort projects included developing numerical models of blood flow around aneurysms using brain images from Inova Fairfax Hospital; dry eye syndrome using thin film techniques; and magnetic fields around the Earth.

The student researchers presented their projects at several regional mathematics meetings, in addition to national research conferences in Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and California.

Other participant requirements include developing a poster on their research to be presented at the annual Mason Celebration of Scholarship and writing an undergraduate thesis detailing their work. Many students who complete the program can expect to publish a journal article based on their research, Wallin says.

A second cohort of five students began the program this summer.

For more information about the program, contact Wallin or Tim Sauer, professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences.

Write to at