Carnegie Mellon University
June 17, 2020

Mathematical Sciences Department Holds Virtual Poster Competition

By Ben Panko

For the 11 undergraduate students presenting their research in this year's Mathematical Sciences Poster Competition, things were a little different. Instead of standing by their posters in the Cohon University Center and explaining them, the participants competed via Zoom.

"I've run the competition for several years now, and I know how much it means to our students to have an opportunity to showcase the amazing work they've produced," Associate Professor Ian Tice said. "When I heard that the Meeting of the Minds was shutting down, I knew immediately that I had to step up and run our program virtually."

Meeting of the Minds, Carnegie Mellon University’s annual undergraduate research showcase, was canceled for 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Running a virtual competition brings new technical challenges, however, as Tice found out. To avoid internet connectivity issues, the participants recorded their poster presentations instead of giving them live. Then, on the day of the competition, the participants logged in via Zoom to answer questions from Tice and his fellow judges, associate professors Wesley Pegden and Clinton Conley.

The grand prize winner was rising senior Fei Peng, who presented a poster about research he did as part of a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship last year with Assistant Professor Florian Frick. The poster detailed his work on the question "what can you draw" with a unit-disk brush and a unit-disk eraser. Peng said he was inspired to study the topic after doodling on a website for creating custom maps.

"I liked having the competition over Zoom," Peng said. “By doing this we enjoyed the fun without risking our lives."

For rising senior Philip Lamkin, the competition was a little odd. "I'm used to being able to interact with someone while giving a presentation and judge their reactions, so missing that feedback was hard to deal with," he said, though overall it was not a bad experience. Lamkin was one of three unranked runners-up in the competition. His poster discussed how averages of random variables behave.

"When you flip one coin, you get heads or tails, each with a 50% chance," Lamkin explained. "But what about when you flip lots of coins? We can give a nice answer for that (the binomial distribution), but then what happens if you replace 'coin' with an arbitrary source of randomness?"

Tice said all things considered the competition went very smoothly, and he was glad it was able to still take place.

"We're very happy that the poster competition was one fewer thing taken away from our students this year," Tice said.