Trying Grad School on for Size-Mellon College of Science - Carnegie Mellon University

Friday, July 27, 2007

Trying Grad School on for Size

Retail stores offer a great service: you can buy a pair of shoes, for example, take them home, test them out a bit, and — if they don’t suit you — return them. What if you could do the same sort of thing with graduate school? Thirteen undergraduate students from across the country are doing just that this summer at Carnegie Mellon University’s Summer Undergraduate Applied Mathematics Institute.

In its 15th year, the Undergraduate Mathematics Institute gives students a taste of the graduate experience, including course-work taught at a level appropriate to juniors and sophomores but with graduate-level intensity. The Institute also offers research projects that give students the chance to discover the pleasures — and frustrations — of attacking open-ended research problems.

“I’m learning how to find a balance between working on a research project and taking classes,” said participant Deb Vicinsky, a rising junior from Bucknell University who thinks the program is a good indicator of what graduate school would be like.

“The type of applied mathematics research we offer during the Undergraduate Mathematics Institute is something that these students typically haven’t been exposed to at their home institutions,” explained Deborah Brandon, associate teaching professor of mathematical sciences and the current director of the program. “Some students get very frustrated tackling the research projects, but it’s a great learning experience for them.”

An outreach component of the Center for Nonlinear Analysis (CNA) at Carnegie Mellon, the Undergraduate Mathematics Institute is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, National Security Agency, and the CNA. Students selected into the program receive a stipend, housing in university dormitories, and allowances for food and travel.

Each year, students can choose from a variety of research projects on which they can work independently or as part of a small group. This year, students are working on projects dealing with partial differential equations, fractals, and combinatorics, just to name a few.

In addition to the research projects, students also are taking a course in the calculus of variations, taught by Professor William Hrusa, and a computer laboratory, where they are introduced to the Maple programming language by David Handron, lecturer in the department of mathematical sciences. To learn more about applied mathematics research, students also attend a series of talks by outside speakers and Carnegie Mellon faculty and graduate students.

Keith Rodgers, Jr., a rising senior and math major from Alabama State University, is working on a research project that includes simple option pricing models, which are the building blocks for the more complex models traders and researchers use. Financial analysts use mathematically complex option pricing techniques to calculate the value of a stock option, for example. And Rodgers, who is just getting his feet wet in the area of computational finance, is hooked.

“I’m interested in applying to graduate school at Carnegie Mellon because it has a great computational finance program,” he said.

By: Amy Pavlak