Undergraduates Get a Summer-long Taste of the Research Life

May 18, 2008

Participants in the summer 2007 MSRI-UP program, shown here with organizers Ricardo Cortez (far left) and Juan Meza (far right). From left, front row: Frequent visitors Jeremy Meza and Rachel Meza, Patrick Cesarz, Luis de la Torre, teaching assistant Tamara Flournoy, Sofia Garcia, Talea Mayo, Greta Villarosa, and Carmen Smith; back row: Thomas Pulickal, Mitch Wilson, Natalie Durgin, Donavian Huskey, teaching assistant Edgar Lobaton, Gina-Maria Pomann, and Sean Ewing.

"It was the best experience of my entire life, period."

That's how Gina-Maria Pomann, a senior at The College of New Jersey, describes the summer she spent at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley. Pomann, along with 11 other students, participated in last year's undergraduate research program at MSRI (known as MSRI-UP). She and three other students---Patrick Cesarz of Villanova University, Luis de la Torre, a recent graduate of UC Davis, and Greta Villarosa of the College of William & Mary---worked with adviser Ali Pinar on the power grid research described in the accompanying article.

Pomann credits the program for introducing her to research, connecting her with professors and scholars, and giving her "an insane amount" of opportunities for the future. Prior to the summer in Berkeley, she says, she was completely unaware that she had such options.

"I had no idea that undergraduate opportunities for math majors even existed," she says. "I didn't even know that you could do anything else besides be a high school teacher."

Pomann traces her experience back to an overheard conversation between two girls at TCNJ, one of whom mentioned "how she made money and did math all summer." When Pomann interrupted to ask for details, the students told her to search for undergraduate math programs on Google, which she did---and found MSRI-UP.

Thanks in part to her fortuitous eavesdropping and her time at MSRI, Pomann now has another rewarding Google experience in her future---a Google Anita Borg Scholarship, which she plans to use to attend graduate school.

Juan Meza, head of the High Performance Computing Research Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and research leader for last year's MSRI-UP program, sees Pomann's experience as exactly what the program is all about: getting more students from underrepresented groups into graduate school.

"We wanted [students] to come in and have a sense of what research life is like," Meza says, "and this also had a related component---this was, we thought, a good way to encourage students to consider graduate work. If they saw what research life was like, then we hoped that perhaps they would have a better idea of what to expect in graduate school, and how much fun that would be. [Research] is such a mystery to so many students, but especially for students from underrepresented minorities---they may be the first ones in their generation or their family to consider graduate school, so it's all a big mystery. One of the goals is to try to de-mystify that whole process."

Under the program, which was funded last year by the National Security Agency with support from MSRI and LBNL, students spend six weeks at MSRI attending lectures, workshops, and talks, participating in a research program, and presenting the results of the research. (The summer 2008 program is also funded by the National Science Foundation.) Afterward, the students have another opportunity to present their research, this time at a national conference.

The 12 students in last year's program presented their work both at MSRI and at the national conference of SACNAS---the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. The students "had a chance to present the results and put a poster together, and they saw how to convey and communicate the research that they were doing," says Meza, who considers these experiences among the most important offered by MSRI-UP.

"After all that we had learned, they made us put it together to write a paper and present. That was incredibly valuable," Pomann says.

"The most valuable thing I got was really the presentations we had to do, and especially the big final presentation and getting the paper together," says de la Torre, who majored in mathematics and economics at UC Davis. "Getting good programming experience and working as a team, and especially communicating ideas, was really valuable."

Like Pomann, de la Torre plans to attend graduate school and credits MSRI-UP with giving him more opportunities in that regard.

"I went [to MSRI] already with the idea that I knew I wanted to go to grad school, but the computational applied work helped me get a good idea about this more applied stuff, when my classes had been theoretical," he recalls. "It definitely helped me get into some good grad schools." (He is currently weighing offers from Berkeley, Stanford, Northwestern, Rice, and NC State, among others. Pomann will do research at Stanford this summer, and hopes to attend either Stanford or Berkeley.)

Of course, there were some challenges as well.

"Getting organized was definitely tough, because research was fairly new to all of us, and especially working as a team in this kind of stuff was definitely new," says de la Torre. "Figuring out how to separate the work into different manageable parts was hard."

For Pomann, "The hardest part of the research was probably not having a drawn outline of what I was supposed to do."

Meza, for his part, encountered challenges in developing the research program: "[I wanted] to abstract a small research project from an existing project at [LBNL]," he says. "It turns out that this was a lot harder than I thought, because it's hard to develop something that is still research but can be done in a six-week time period. So I spent a lot of time doing that, but I think in the end it was really worthwhile."

Pomann concurs.

"It's amazing, because I'm at Princeton now doing my own research, and there's no guidance," she says. "Had I ever gone into this without having that program behind me---there's just no way. Number one, I never would have gotten the opportunity, and number two, I never would have known what to do with it. I would have been too scared."

The summer 2008 program will introduce 18 undergraduate students to research, this time with a focus on experimental mathematics, led by Victor Moll of Tulane. The application deadline was in February, but Meza encourages undergraduates to keep MSRI-UP in mind as an opportunity for future summers. Participants must have completed their first two years of university-level mathematics courses---but they do not have to be mathematics majors.

"The main requirement is just an interest in mathematics or a related topic," Meza says. "We're looking for really good students, and we're looking for people who are really interested in a research experience."---MS

Video recordings of last year's student presentations are available at http://www.msri.org/calendar/workshops/WorkshopInfo/425/show_workshop. Additional information about MSRI-UP can be found at http://www.msri.org/up/description.

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