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Prestigious awards and research internships for math and physics students

By Srila Nayak

Students research pays off with awards

Mathematics and physics students at Oregon State University are achieving incredible things: Awards for mathematical prowess and for applying math to solve real-world problems, mastering the art of teaching and pursuing research in the nation's best labs.

High-powered research internship

Gabriel Nowak, who graduates in December 2017 with a double major in mathematics and physics and a chemistry minor, was selected for a summer internship at the prestigious Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in Berkeley, California. With the help of a Department of Energy Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI), Nowak spent nine weeks at LBNL, working with the Atomic Molecular and Optical Science experimental group on a project devoted to investigating laser generated nanoparticle array formation and the dynamics of charge transfer in the process. Nowak designed and planned the experimental process and handled the design and set up of equipment systems and spatial lighting sources.

Gabriel Nowak in front of beige backdrop

Gabriel Nowak, double major in mathematics and physics with a chemistry minor

The SULI internship is a highly competitive program that offers STEM undergraduate students research experiences at 17 participating Department of Energy laboratories nationwide.

Nowak found the “extraordinarily experimental internship” to be “very valuable” giving him many opportunities to learn about different aspects of what it means to be part of a larger scientific community and a collaborative research group.

This isn't the first time Nowak has been awarded a SULI internship. In summer 2016, he completed a SULI internship in accelerator physics at the Jefferson Lab in Norfolk, Virginia, where he improved upon a method of analyzing accelerator data. Nowak continued working remotely on the project at Oregon State and the research now appears in his undergraduate thesis.

Nowak has acquired a rich, multi-disciplinary education at OSU, and he intends to continue to study both math and physics at the graduate level. He will apply to master’s programs in mathematics this year and eventually plans to pursue a Ph.D. in particle physics.

To his delight, Nowak has found that he can use his math skills in a variety of fields of research. “For me, mathematics is an incredibly useful tool and bridge to understand most phenomena in the natural and physical sciences,” said Nowak.

Nowak also has a passion for theoretical mathematics and has enjoyed many intellectually transformational moments in his classes in modern algebra, advanced calculus and topology.

Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, Nowak started out aspiring to study chemical engineering, but realized that he didn't want to study the subject after his first brush with chemical engineering coursework. An encouraging conversation with Professor Henri Jansen in the Department of Physics, led Nowak to math and physics.

"I told Henri I was interested in learning more about particle physics through research, and he said I could do that here."

Nowak joined Professor and Head of Physics, Heidi Schellman's neutrino physics group, and has had a fantastic learning experience collaborating on the Minerva and MicroBoone experiments at Fermi National Laboratory. In addition to remotely operating the Minerva experiment from Oregon State, Nowak designed and created a data analysis tool and compared large physics data sets from both experimental projects.

Nowak is deeply grateful to Schellman for inspiring him to continue in physics. Although it took two years for Nowak to find his true calling in science at OSU, he has managed to amass a ton of experiences across a range of research fields, from electrochemistry to high energy physics. Studying and excelling in math and physics represent a significant turning point in Nowak's life because he didn't display a particular talent for the subjects in school.

"I had no idea I would be a math and physics major one day. I was an undecided major for two years. I am grateful to OSU for giving me the freedom and flexibility to explore a wide range of courses and discover my true passion."

A passion for mathematics teaching

Celeste Wong, who graduated in June 2017, has harbored an ambition to teach mathematics to middle and high school students right from her own school days in San Francisco. Her exceptional performance and dedication as a teaching assistant in the Foundations of Elementary Mathematics (Math 211) earned her the 2017 Gary L. Musser Award, which recognizes outstanding mathematical achievement for a prospective elementary or middle school teacher.

Celeste Wong holding up award on stage

Celeste Wong, mathematics alumnus

The course, taught by Marie Franzosa and Charissa Hake, was a milestone in Wong’s undergraduate career, helping her acquire “a really strong foundation in problem-based mathematical teaching, learn about effective class structure and ways to make the subject interesting to students.” The class is designed for teachers who want to teach mathematics in school.

In the class, Wong assisted students with group problem-solving and helped guide their thinking toward mathematical knowledge and discovery.

Wong is also highly appreciative of her courses in Algebraic and Geometric Transformations—a set of three courses (491-493) taught by Mary Beisiegel and Thomas Dick. The classes, she observes, taught her an interesting way of looking at math and helped her develop logical thinking—attributes that will serve her very well in her career as a mathematics teacher.

“Mathematics at OSU was nothing like I expected. I found a bunch of great professors and lots of friends who I did math with. I truly enjoyed doing homework problems with my friends in the Math Learning Center; We were like a math family,” Wong observed.

Wong will begin the Master of Science in Education program at OSU this year to specialize in mathematics education. She aspires to become a high school mathematics teacher in the near future.

Seniors win awards in Putnam Math Competition*

Of our many talented mathematics majors, two stand out for their mathematical abilities both inside and outside of the classroom. Seniors Gregory “Mirek” Brandt and Patrick Thomas Flynn are both Honors College students double majoring majors in mathematics and physics with straight A's. Both participated in the Putnam Math Competition and the COMAP (Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications) Mathematical Contest in Modeling last year.

Mirek Brandt in the LINC

Goldwater scholar Gregory Mirek Brandt. Photo by Hamza Molvi.

The 77th Annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition held last December included a six-hour exam with only 12 problems. However, of the more than 3,000 undergraduate participants, approximately half scored zero points. Mirek and Patrick both scored 10 points, landing in the 66th percentile.

The 33rd Annual COMAP Mathematical Contest in Modelling held last January featured 96 hours of competition in which teams of three undergraduates worked to formulate a solution to an open-ended, real word problem. This year 's problem was to perform an analysis of the effect on traffic flow of allowing self-driving, cooperating cars on particular highways in the state of Washington.

Both Mirek and Patrick, along with their respective teammates, submitted well-reasoned, and well-written papers, and presented their work to their peers in a forum organized by the OSU Math Club. Mirek's team even won Honorable Mention, or roughly 50th percentile, out of 8000 teams of 3 internationally.

Each student received further recognition this year: Mirek won the prestigious 2017 Barry Goldwater Scholarship, the top undergraduate award in the country for sophomores and juniors in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Patrick was awarded the Joel Davis Award and also won the Writing in the Curriculum Math WIC Paper Award.

(*Contributed by the Department of Mathematics)

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