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Underrepresented math students get early access to research at FIU summer program

Underrepresented math students get early access to research at FIU summer program

July 21, 2022 at 11:28am

Students from around the country participated in a unique, immersive program at FIU designed to improve access to research for undergraduates of diverse backgrounds including those who are typically underrepresented in applied mathematics.

Over a period of eight weeks, the cohort of 24 undergraduates from 12 universities worked in groups on various projects related to applied mathematics with applications in other disciplines including biology, economics, physics, epidemiology and ecology. This year’s participants were selected from a pool of 120 applicants.

“From the first day of the program, students are immersed in a unique experience, studying, researching and socializing in a tight-knit group where all are involved in research programs with the highest academic standards,” said Svetlana Roudenko, the program’s director and a professor of mathematics and statistics. “That is, programs that provide the tools and training needed to carry out a significant piece of research in a short period of time, programs that increase students’ confidence by letting them measure their talent, creativity and training against a high level of competition within a nurturing and supportive environment.”

The goal is for students to gain valuable experiences that will enhance their success in graduate school and future careers, ultimately increasing the number and proficiency of STEM students entering the workforce. 

“One of the principal objectives includes a sustained effort to increase the number of talented underrepresented minority and female students who apply and are accepted to competitive U.S. graduate programs in applied mathematics or related fields,” said the program coordinator Stephen Tennenbaum. “The program has activities designed to facilitate admission to graduate programs in mathematics. For example, there are multiple workshops going over the process of applying for graduate school admission, national fellowships, NSF graduate fellowship, writing CVs, etc.”

Graduate mentors, postdoctoral researchers and faculty advisors help undergraduates navigate the world of academic research.

Alex David Rodriguez, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in applied mathematics is one such mentor. This summer, Rodriguez mentored Hannah Wubben, a mathematics and computer science major from Loras College in Iowa, and Gia Azcoitia, mathematics and electrical engineering major from FIU.

Their project was to make changes to the Schrödinger wave equation, the fundamental equation underlying quantum mechanics, to model phenomena in optical, plasma or water waves or help predict turbulence or even the formation of hurricanes. 

For his part, Rodriguez said he became a mentor to provide students with the resources he did not have as an undergrad and to help nurture the next generation of mathematicians.

“This program, in particular, is exceptionally special because students often leave with full technical reports and some even have the opportunity to submit their work to journals for publication,” Rodriguez said. “We also offer professional development and cohort activities throughout the program that showcase not only FIU but also the beautiful city of Miami. Already, we've had students from our previous year graduate and commit to top graduate programs around the country.”

Ginelle Gonzalez and fellow Ph.D. candidate Eddy Perez mentored Khadeja Ghannam, a mathematics major with a concentration in biology from the University of California, Irvine and Alberto Sales, a mathematics and computer science major at FIU. This group worked on a tumor growth model and studied a system of equations used to model the behavior of cancer cells and their interactions with normal and immune cells in the human body.

“Our project is important because it will help people to better understand cancer and it can also help doctors to provide more personalized treatments if they have models that are realistic,” said Gonzalez, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics while researching the structure and behavior of arteriovenous malformations or tangles of abnormal blood vessels — a rare condition she also suffers from.

The participating undergraduates presented their research projects during the program’s final symposium — giving them a feel for what conference presentations may be like. Their research projects provided insight into the possible implementations of applied mathematics across disciplines. Some will further their research by working with their mentors and advisors at their home institutions to produce papers for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

The Applied Mathematics Research Program for Undergraduates is one of several 
competitive summer research programs in the United States for undergraduates studying science, engineering or mathematics. However, FIU’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates is one of an elite few that are sponsored by both the National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency. FIU is the only public research university in Florida to host an REU program for applied mathematics and to offer a broad range of subject areas in that field.

Applications for the 2023 program will open in January. More information about the program — including past participants, projects, mentors and the application process — is available at