Johnson State College recently experienced another first in its developing culture of research. Last spring, Shayna Bennett (‘17) received word of her acceptance into the Applied ResearCH In ModEling and Data-Enabled Science (ARCHIMEDES), one of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs in Applied Mathematics. Located at the University of California at Merced, ARCHIMEDES, introduced students to new mathematical modeling and programming techniques in order to assess real-world problems. They applied computational tools to solve research questions, analyzed data, and ultimately translated the results into scientific context.
Shayna, a double major in mathematics and environmental science, spent nine weeks working on a team with four other students and two faculty mentors. Their project used differential equations to model the spread of an invasive species. Specifically, the team looked at the spread of Japanese Knotweed on two spatial scales, one being the spread of the rhizome network of a single plant over time and the other being the spread of the plant population over the New England and Great Lakes regions. Their results at the rhizome level were compared to a published paper that used a 3D random walk method to model the same process and observed a close relationship between the two over time. At the population level, the team compared their calculated spread over time to field data and saw a similar spread pattern.
Shayna noted the impact of this experience on her learning, “Johnson State has been great in giving me a broad understanding of science and math. From my last three years there I built a strong foundation and the REU this summer let me move to the next level: application. Working on a research project requires critical thinking and unlike a class, there is no way around it. This summer I found myself stretched to not just learn and apply techniques in mathematics that I was unfamiliar with, but to look out into the literature and the real world to understand a new process in enough depth that I could avoid - biases and misconceptions in my model. I had to be objective, thorough, and have a clear understanding of exactly what I should expect to see if my model was doing what I wanted it to do. There were no answers in the back of the book anymore.
Practicing this process was an invaluable learning experience.”
Before starting the REU program, Shayna wanted to pursue a PhD in applied mathematics or mathematical ecology. After experiencing research in this discipline she is still committed to this path. However, there is one caveat. Shayna points out, “I found I don’t enjoy spending all my time working on the computer and debugging models. I need to be out in the field understanding first-hand what I am trying to model. The real world experience gives me a way of gaining the level of understanding I need to model the phenomenon well and brings me back to my roots as a scientist.”
Spending a summer at a research institution was an enlightening experience for Shayna, “The classes undergraduates have to take become so much more tangible after talking with fellow students doing research in the fields of, for example, material engineering, biochemical engineering, applied mathematics, robotics, and bioinformatics. The undergraduate experience for math and science majors doesn’t seem to be complete until after this experience. It is almost as if this experience brings you as a student up to a level of understanding far above class work and it is very hard to come back down when the summer ends.”