STEP Reflection

Praachi Das

September 30, 2016

For my STEP Signature Project, I attended the Young Mathematician’s Conference here at The Ohio State University where I presented an undergraduate research project I had worked on throughout the summer of 2016. The project was conducted along with and under the guidance of Dr. Farrah Sadre-Marandi, a post-doctoral researcher at the Mathematical Biosciences Institute at OSU. The project involved a review of mathematical models used to represent the structure and symmetry of virus protein shells called capsids. Dr. Sadre and I investigated and expanded upon a previous model which uses a concept known as lattice theory. This enabled the specific characterization of a larger number of viral capsids and helped explain some complications such as “handedness” that appear to have been oversimplified by the model.

Through this STEP experience, my primary goal was to explore and take part in professional development opportunities which would in turn put me in a better position to obtain an internship. I had primarily aimed to attend various conferences related to my academic fields of interest. I wanted to learn more about the vast amount of information that currently exists in these areas and the research that is currently being done in it. Ultimately, I wanted to use my STEP experience to figure out what direction my academic future would take. Although my actual project was slightly different from my original plan, I can confidently say that this is one goal I did manage to achieve. I was able to use the STEP funds to live in Columbus over the summer and take part in a research project which involved two areas of study that I am most interested in – Biology and Math. This in turn enabled me to work on professional development by attending the YMC in late August. Attending the YMC and being involved in research over the course of four months helped me realize that I would like to attend graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in Mathematical Biology.

From May through mid- August, I worked on my research project and learned more than I could have imagined. I learned about the science behind the concepts we were researching – from viral capsids and fullerenes to lattice theory models and handedness. I also gained experience with the idea of research itself; from figuring out how to approach research and effective ways of doing literature searches to getting into the habit of constantly asking questions and learning that research can often lead nowhere.  Most importantly, I came to realize just how much is out there in these areas of study that nobody knows; let alone how much I don’t know. Rather than frighten, this fact actually excited me, because isn’t that essentially what research is for? It’s to explore the unknown based on what is known in order to build on the existing pool of knowledge and make a contribution to progress and new developments. I came to recognize that this is what I want to continue to do, particularly in my areas of interest – epidemiology, mathematical modeling of microbiological structures and population ecology.

As I mentioned, taking part in this research project allowed me to apply and be selected to attend the Young Mathematician’s Conference held at OSU. It may sound stereotypical, but this two and a half day conference really was an unforgettable experience. This was the first opportunity I had received to present my research to other students and professors who are involved in mathematical research. I spoke to like-minded people about the work I did and engaged in some of the most interesting conversations. I was able to really get into the details of my project with people who understood the theories behind it and were truly interested in learning more – something that had previously been a rarity. In fact, a couple of questions from some students brought to light a few concepts that were not clearly stated. This turned out to be very helpful as Dr. Sadre and I were able to look into these questions and refine our results further.

Along the same lines, I have to mention the excitement I felt upon meeting all the students who were a part of the conference. I had thought that being at a math conference with around 60 other students would be too daunting for me to actually get to know people. However, the fact that we were all there for the same reason – to talk about our research and learn about others’ work- and shared a common passion for math made it infinitely easier. It was nice to know that there are so many other people all over the country who get as excited by math as I do! It was also fascinating to learn about the research that they all had done over the summer. This reinforced my growing recognition of how vast research is, in particular mathematical research, and how many different avenues one can explore.

At the conference, I also had the opportunity to interact with and attend talks by faculty from various universities across the country. I had an interesting conversation with Dr. Illeana Streinu from Smith College who has experience in math research involving biological aspects, and it was intriguing to bounce ideas back and forth with her. I also had the opportunity to listen to a talk given by Dr. Henry Segerman from Oklahoma State University. He talked about the mathematical aspects behind 3D printing and it was definitely one of the most remarkable talks I have ever attended. Additionally, the conference also had a graduate school panel consisting of all the faculty members which was immensely helpful. It provided me with a lot of tips and advice on approaching the process of applying to graduate school.

While it may not be obvious, being able to work on this research project and consequently attend the YMC really was a one-of-a kind experience. I had been struggling all of last year wondering what exactly it was that I wanted to do career-wise. Being able to have this experience helped me determine that I want to study further and do more research involving both math and biology. The ability to research and mathematically represent biological entities, the spread of diseases, epidemics, drug use, and population growth would enable me to present alternative perspectives on these important issues. Having such a capability could contribute to a better understanding of current knowledge and bring to light new information which may potentially lead to the advancement of treatment, containment and prevention strategies for various health issues that plague today’s world.

I was also able to meet so many new people who have helped form and develop this goal, from my peers at the YMC to my mentor Dr. Sadre. A reflection on my experience would not be complete without mentioning how amazing working with Dr. Sadre has been. Her enthusiasm and love for biomathematical research combined with her intelligence and bubbly nature has been a huge influence on me. We are so similar in our manner of thinking, and I have learned heaps from her about research. In fact, I will continue to work with her until I graduate in Spring 2017. Additionally, having this experience will definitely give me an advantage when applying to graduate school, which is an invaluable benefit. All this would definitely have been a lot more difficult to accomplish had it not been for STEP. I am grateful that I was able to have this opportunity and am glad that I decided to be a part of this program!

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