By the Numbers

One of the primary perks of my job involves getting to know many Texas A&M Science faculty, staff and students — several of whom I’m privileged to call friends.

In the wee hours of last Friday morning, one of those friends posted what I considered to be a rather intriguing Facebook status update about having 430 exams to grade — her night’s take from a thrice-per-semester event that’s referred to in the Department of Mathematics as a “common exam.”

imageImmediately suspecting calculus, I turned to Google and searched “Texas A&M Math 151.” Success with the first option, which took me to a most helpful departmental link that explained a lot:

“The first year of calculus (Math 151/152) is a prerequisite for most math, physics and engineering courses. In fact, the College of Engineering uses the grades in Math 151 and 152 to help determine who is allowed to enroll in upper level engineering courses. Therefore, it is critical that the Mathematics Department have a common standard across all sections of this course. For these reasons, the Department has implemented a system of three common exams in Math 151 and 152. The final exam will not be of common type. …”

However, as both a writer and someone who had her fair share of trouble with mathematics back in the day, I had to know more. I guess I’m still trying in subtle ways to make up for lost time(s) and to figure out what I could have done differently — well, beyond go to class more and, um, have learned it in high school like my exasperated professor back then so often fervently opined and desperately wished. To be fair, I think if I would have realized then there were people who truly wanted to help me (mercifully, they still do) and that they were putting just as much if not more effort into the class as I was, I would have been a lot better off, if not at least more grateful.

Now that my 40-something self has those answers (thanks to my kind friend in the middle of her grading), I can safely vouch to my former-20-something one that what goes on behind this educational scene definitely is not common. More like nothing short of amazing. Consider the following numbers, for which even I can do the math:

  • 151 — The course, otherwise known as Math 151: Engineering Mathematics I.
  • 68 — Sections offered in Fall 2013 across the Department of Mathematics. My friend is responsible for 12 of those, with between 30-42 students in each.
  • ~2,200 — Aggies currently enrolled in what’s more commonly referred to as engineering calculus.
  • 13 — Instructors teaching those roughly 2,200 students.
  • 23 — Teaching assistants assigned to help those 13 professors and lecturers.
  • 15 — Multiple-choice questions on the exam, which is a combination of scantron/show-your-work options.
  • 7 — Free-response problems.

imageBeyond Math 151/152, the department also offers a Math 141/142 Business Mathematics course characterized by “jumbo-sized” sections of roughly 300 students per section, all taught by seven instructors.

Oh, and did I mention they also offer such resources as Week in Review, Supplemental Instruction services, help sessions and even a summer Personalized Precalculus Program — most of which have been created during the past decade and a half to better help all students, regardless of level of experience and secondary preparation?

All in a day’s work and then some within a college responsible for teaching 20 percent of the total class hours (roughly 1 in 5) taught to all 45,000-plus Aggie undergraduates each semester and — by careful and caring design — set up to pass, not fail, each and every one of those students.

Here’s hoping these 20-somethings realize, truly appreciate and take advantage of those efforts for the absolute services they are long before I did.

Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU

I’m one of of the faculty mentors for the Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU program, which I originally talked about here. Two of our five students are working with me on a project this summer. We are a three-woman dream team!

We are studying mathematical models of how organisms coexist and compete while using the same resources in an ecosystem. There are a variety of ways that organisms use resources. For example, plants need nitrate and phosphate to grow, and without sufficient quantities of both of these nutrients, the plant will die. On the other hand, humans can get energy for daily activities from carbohydrates, protein or fats. If we don’t have carbohydrates, we can substitute some protein or fat and get by; for the sake of providing us with energy, we need any one of these, but we don’t need all. Modeling has been used with multiple organisms using one type of nutrient utilization, but not a lot with multiple organisms having multiple ways of utilizing nutrients. That’s what we are working on.

Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU Group

Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU Group

Thus far, we’ve reproduced some results from existing models with a common type of nutrient utilization; in particular, we’ve shown how one organism can outcompete others for the same resources, and how two organisms can coexist even though they both utilize the same resources. We are working on learning some of the background science of how organisms use resources and the equations and mathematics associated with this. We are performing a literature review to familiarize ourselves with what research has been done in the past and has been published recently. We are learning what types of questions scientists are interested in and have answered in the past, and also figuring out where we can make a novel contribution. And, given that we are a mathematics program, it won’t surprise you to learn that we are developing the equations we need to make the modifications required to the model we have so that we can do something new.

The other three students in our program have interesting problems to work on as well. Two are working on mathematical models for how atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) occurs and how diet and exercise might improve arterial health. One student is working on mathematical models for controlling invasive species; personally, I am hoping he will find a way to mitigate the spread of fireants.

Heart of the Matter

I got the rare opportunity a few months ago to sit in on a video shoot with one of our fairly new and absolutely dynamic professors in the Department of Chemistry, Karen Wooley. I’ve never been so glad that I for once seized the day, because soon after leaving my usual seat, I found myself sitting on the edge of quite another.

For proper context, I’ve had the privilege of writing a few press releases on Dr. Wooley’s work, but in all cases (mostly due to her busy travel schedule and the basic convenience of mine) those exchanges occurred via email. Suffice it to say in-person is invaluable and that I had no idea what I was missing. To be in her presence is to know the pure joy she radiates — about her science, her students and broader lab group, their shared “ah-ha” moments big and small in the name of curiosity as catalyst of discovery, the overall give-and-take of knowledge generation, being at Texas A&M University, etc.

Karen Wooley (seated at center), enjoying a light-hearted moment with members of her research group between takes during a video/photography shoot in her Texas A&M Chemistry laboratory. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

Karen Wooley (seated at center), enjoying a light-hearted moment with members of her research group between takes during a video/photography shoot in her Texas A&M Chemistry laboratory. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

I learned three things in that hour, and to the surprise of a gal who struggled through two years of premed before changing majors to journalism, even a little chemistry in the process:

  1. Karen Wooley enjoys her work, and there’s a lot of it to love. The sheer volume of projects she has going on would make your head spin. And that’s before she rattles off the myriad federal agencies and industry leaders who fund and support it. In short, she believes — in herself, her group, her department/university and her profession’s potential — and that contagious confidence not only shows, it produces results. And more grants. And more breakthrough discoveries. And more excitement. Talk about a pretty picture that needs no storyboard!
  2. Karen Wooley gets frustrated. Newsflash: Scientists are people, too. Even though I know this and try my best to convey it in every story I write, I have to admit I never fully thought about the everyday struggles involved in and incumbent upon being a research group leader. While I joke that I only get to write in my spare time, the same holds true for high-flying chemists, whose responsibilities as de facto CEOs of what amounts to a small corporation likewise take away from their true love — actual bench time. There’s no “i” in team. Nor is there one in “laboratory” or “research.” Interesting parallel.
  3. Karen Wooley has trouble defining success. After nearly a solid hour of providing non-stop detail on the countless projects and personnel that encompass Team Wooley (and revealing that some of the best breakthroughs indeed happen by accident — or, to put it more accurately, under the expert watch of someone with the right combination of experience, knowledge and curiosity necessary to first recognize and then to play out the possibilities), it was a wrap. I saw my window and jumped, rendering Dr. Wooley speechless for the first and only time that afternoon with one spontaneous question: “How do you define success?” Granted, it was neither in the pre-shoot list nor entirely fair. The trite job-interview equivalent of “Where do you see yourself in five years?” which always makes me chuckle as I think of the stock “in-your-job” answer that runs through my mind but for once not out my mouth. For the record, my standard answer is “happy.” And although Dr. Wooley never said as much, she didn’t have to, considering it was obvious to all present in the room.

A wrap, indeed, and all in my ideal kind of day’s work.

Research Experiences for Undergraduates

It’s summertime in Aggieland, and one thing that means is an influx of students from across the United States participating in Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grants at the university. The Math Department is only one of many National Science Foundation-funded REU sites at Texas A&M. The Math department has been running an REU site every summer since the program was started in 1999.  This summer, we have 14 students, 8 women and 6 men, with us for 8 weeks.  Five students are participating in the program in Number Theory, five in Mathematical Modeling in Biology, and four in Algorithmic Algebraic Geometry.  The Algebraic Geometry group is supplemented by two local undergraduates.

REU students and mentors, summer 2013

REU students and mentors, summer 2013

Students generally have lectures and homework to deal with for the first two weeks of the program. This familiarizes them with the foundational mathematics they will need for the research problems they’ll be working on.  By the middle of the second week, they are given research problems and get started trying to solve them.

This past Friday, the last day of the second week of the program, all the students and mentors in our REU got together for lunch. Students gave short presentations describing their research problems. At the end of the fourth and sixth weeks of the program, we’ll get updates from everyone on their projects. At the end of the eighth week of the program, we have a Minisymposium, where all our REU students present their results.