Two Furman seniors were honored this summer for their work in mathematics, but the road there wasn’t just about equations.
They applied math to a biology problem and employed computer modeling to test their theories in a research project they presented at MathFest, the annual conference of the Mathematical Association of America.
Zack Miller ’18, an applied math and physics major from Rock Hill, and Mary Lib Saine ’18, a math and information technology major from Columbia, were among 13 Furman students who spent last summer working on campus in six math-based projects. Their research ranged from math education to sports analytics to projects like Miller’s and Saine’s, with biological implications.
“It’s taking math and applying it to many outside problems,” said Liz Bouzarth, an associate professor of mathematics.
Miller and Saine received the Janet L. Andersen Award for Undergraduate Research in Mathematical or Computational Biology. Their work involved developing a computer model of pulmonary cilia, allowing them to investigate how changes in ciliary movement impact the movement of fluid and particles in the lung.
They applied physics and mathematics through computer technology to investigate a biological function that has implications for cystic fibrosis and primary ciliary dyskinesia, or PCD. In cystic fibrosis, dense mucous stops the cilia’s normal whipping motion. In PCD, the cilia move incorrectly or not at all.
Miller and Saine were able to model variations in ciliary metachronal waves, to better understand how they affect the transport of fluids and particles.
Both students plan to attend graduate school – and that means research is in their future.
“I needed to get my feet in the water, see what it’s like,” Saine said.
Miller participated in a physics research project in Missouri two summers ago. That experience helped clarify aspects of math he’s not interested in pursuing. But this experience confirmed his interest in aerospace engineering, a field that relies heavily on computer modeling.
Bouzarth is in her seventh year at Furman but this is the first time she’s brought students into this part of her research. That’s because Miller and Saine, who already had coding experience, were uniquely qualified.
“I needed students who had the right skill set before the summer started, so I could teach them the math and the biology,” she said.
Bouzarth and Kevin Hutson, professor of mathematics, supervised the award-winning project.
Hutson said it would be doing students a disservice to send them to graduate school unprepared for research. Bringing them in for summer work expands the impact of faculty projects and simultaneously equips students for their next steps.
Taking them to conferences and helping them identify places to present their work is a natural next step.
“It’s showing them what the community is like,” Hutson said.
All the students doing math research developed their presentation skills over the course of the summer by meeting every other week with the other research teams and outlining their work from the past week.
“It built a presentation for us,” Miller said. By the time he got to the conference, he was comfortable with his ability to convey the material.
Working as a team “helped me to think individually but also to work collaboratively,” Saine said.
Bouzarth said the connections built during summer research can go deeper than those that develop in a classroom setting. The Furman Advantage includes a commitment to mentoring relationships like these.
Miller and Saine are currently preparing a paper on their work. It will be submitted for publication soon. Hutson said that’s not typical for undergraduate math research projects.
Bouzarth and Hutson have had ample opportunity to observe Miller and Saine, both in the classroom and in less traditional settings such as Math and the Mouse, a May X course they conduct at Walt Disney World. They’ve watched both students grow in their thinking, their interest and their commitment.
“It was no surprise that they killed summer research,” Bouzarth said, smiling.