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President Obama congratulates UMD math student
Evan O’Dorney, a student in the summer UMD advanced mathematics program - titled "Research experience for undergraduates," (REU) - received a telephone call from President Barack Obama on Friday.
The President called to congratulate Evan on his performance at the recent International Mathematics Olympics, where Evan Placed Number Two in the World for High School Math Students.
The President asked him what he was doing this summer, and Evan, from Danville, CA, described the advanced mathematics problem he is working on in Duluth at the UMD Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program this summer.
Evan recalled, “Yes, I briefly described the problem I am working on here at UMD to the President, and he said, ‘That sounds interesting. That sounds right up your alley.’ “
Evan is working on a Combinatorics Problem in mathematics.
Indeed, this is a genuine tribute to Evan O’Dorney and to the superior quality of the UMD Summer REU and its creator and director, UMD Professor Joseph Gallian. It is a strong indication why acceptance to the 10-week Duluth REU Program is coveted by brilliant young mathematicians around the country,
Gallian each summer hosts the REU. True to his profession, Gallian describes this summer program for college math students using a list of statistics:
• Of the 152 participants in the Duluth REU program, 105 have gone to graduate school at MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago, Princeton, or Stanford.
• 91 of the participants now have their Ph.D.
• Nine of the 15 winners of the Morgan Prize, given jointly by three professional organizations for research by an undergraduate, have gone to Duluth REU participants
• In 15 of the 20 years it has been given, a Duluth REU participant has received the Association for Women in Mathematics Alice Schafer Prize.
When Gallian first started this REU in 1977, there were less than five similar programs in the nation. Today there are more than 80.
“It is the most loosely structured of all the similar programs,” said Gallian. “There are no organized sessions where the students will come in a classroom and work. Math is solitary. The students work individually because we treat this program like a mini Ph.D. experience.”
This combination of informality and rigorous challenge is so appealing, Gallian gets over 100 applicants a year.
Each student is assigned a different problem to work on over the 10-week session. It is their task to conduct original research on their particular problem and give reports on their progress to the group once a week. Gallian said the assigned problems are “reasonable to solve.” While some students go through the program without coming up with a solution, others finish within a few weeks.
For example, a few years ago Gallian gave a student a problem related to Arrow’s Paradox, the paradox of majority voting. As Gallian explains it: “the problem is to create a set of rules that will avoid voting paradoxes when the voter has three or more options to choose from.” The student tried to “decide how to determine a fair outcome from the ranked preferences of individuals subject to a certain set of criteria,” Gallian said. The problem is named after Kenneth Arrow, who received the 1972 Nobel Prize in Economics. The student didn't solve the problem; Arrow proved no one can; but the student did improve existing results on fair voting schemes and the whole group learned about its complexity that summer.
“This program helps the UMD math department promote undergraduate research,” said Gallian. “Because of this program UMD is very well known across the country.” In addition to the 10 undergraduate participants this year, alumni are invited back as visitors to help assist the students with research. The visitors usually stay for one or two weeks. One participant has come back to Duluth 23 years in a row.
Gallian devotes time all year to organizing the sought-after program. “We usually get over 100 applicants and then I go through and narrow it down to 10 or so students” Gallian said. “I then spend time looking for suitable research problems for the students to work on while they are here.” After the students leave, Gallian continues as their mentor, assisting them in publishing their work.
The program is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Security Agency (NSA).
Two of this year’s students are undergraduates at MIT: Emily Berger, a senior, and Davie Rolnick, a junior. They both said they heard of the program by word of mouth.
“If you are in the type of math that we study, you know about this,” Berger said. When asked what attracted them to Gallian’s program, both Berger and Rolnick had similar responses: “it’s well known and it’s the best.” Berger and Rolnick also enjoy the kind of research being done and the fact they are able to work alone rather than groups. Both agree this allows them to take responsibility and pride in their own problem and as Rolnick puts it, gain a “lovely sense of possession.”
Berger explained why acceptance to the Duluth REU is coveted by brilliant young mathematicians around the country, “I am in a space where I can be most myself…it is totally accepting. Also, there is a general sense of passion in this group.” She said, “Both UMD and MIT are special places because people are openly passionate about the things they love. I thrive in that environment,” she said.
The program has made a considerable impact on Berger and Rolnick and they both would like to come back to the program as visitors. As Rolnick explained, “it’s not a program, it’s an experience.”
Berger agreed, “It’s heaven for young mathematicians.”
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