For many, theoretical mathematics might as well be fiction, left to “The Big Bang Theory” on television or Klaatu in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
But Drexel student Yilin Yang is intimately involved with theoretical mathematics and has even done extensive research, which was impressive enough to land her at the fourth annual National Collegiate Research Conference, held at Harvard University Jan. 22–24.
Among 180 college students chosen from across the country to present on their research at the conference, Yang, who is expected to graduate in 2017, was the only one there to present on theoretical mathematics.
“According to the people interested in my work, theoretical math research is so rare to see because almost all the math research they had seen was on applied math,” Yang said. “Besides, they did not think that there was too much research to do on pure math because pure math was like a ‘fact’ or ‘truth.’”
Yang’s presentation, “Constructing Jacobi Matrices from Mixed Data,” changed their minds.
“My explanation and presentation made people realize that theoretical mathematics was researchable and there was great significance in doing research on it,” Yang said. “I think this was my happiest moment during the whole conference.”
Yang was one of nine Drexel students chosen to attend the conference through an application process. Drexel's Office of Undergraduate Research sent the students to the conference and paid their way.
“We were one of the schools with the largest number of participants,” said Anjli Patel. “It was definitely a proud feeling to represent Drexel at the conference, especially when other students from other schools noticed how many presenters we had.”
Patel and fellow chemical engineering student Anthony Abel presented their research on how to improve the performance of minerals used in solar water splitting.
Each student researcher or research team used posters to display their research and discuss with those interested.
Jonathan Fink’s presentation was on researching catalysts for oxidizing volatile organic compounds in Oulu, Finland, for which he said feedback was not limited to the conference’s judges.
“Students also were very supportive and saw the value of conducting this type of research,” Fink said.
The poster method gave students the freedom to interact with other students and explore other topics.
“Not only did I network with student researchers from across the country, but I also gained exposure to interesting research occurring in other fields of study,” Patel said.
“The mix of research interests coupled with some of the most driven individuals I have met provided for an intense experience of intellectual growth, collaboration and inspiration,” said Evan Bisirri, a biomedical engineering student whose research focused on the change in shape of a person’s spine as they age.
In addition to presenting their research, several experiences available to the students who made the trip, including what was called the “Innovation Challenge.” To promote teamwork and problem-solving skills, a current issue was presented for the students to come up with strategies to solve.
“My Innovation Challenge question was ‘How can we champion the right to education for young women and girls?’” said Maissoun Ksara, a civil engineering student whose research involved analyzing the structure of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge.
She said the question was tough but her group worked it through. She felt the challenge fit in with the spirit of the conference.
“Key themes that resonated in the conference were passion, perseverance and the desire to make a change and fix problems in the world,” Ksara said.
Additionally, a collection of guest speakers including Temple Grandin, the famous animal behavior and welfare researcher, Matthew Meselson, a key figure in DNA research for half a century, and Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science magazine, spoke to the gathered students.
“It was exciting to hear them speak,” Fink said. “They stressed the importance of exposing yourself to subjects outside of your comfort zone.”
Universally, the Drexel students felt the experience was invaluable.
“I am definitely bringing back great memories from the conference and also our times venturing around Harvard Square and exploring Boston,” Ksara said. “This conference pushed me to continue to develop my research and hopefully build it up further.”
“All in all, this has been an amazing experience,” said Bisirri. “One that I feel will have a significant impact on how I choose to shape my future.”