Tea and Number Theory at MHC

Posted: July 10, 2006

It's 2 pm on a steamy Friday afternoon in late June and most of the classroom buildings on campus are quiet. But in a room on the fourth floor of Clapp Laboratory, a group of students and professors chats animatedly as they take their seats and sort through pages of mathematical formulas and graphs. "Let's get started," says mathematics professor Giuliana Davidoff. One by one the students address the group, scribbling equations and graphs on the chalkboard to illustrate they problems they're trying to solve and the steps they've taken to find answers. One student passes around a knotted string of pop-it beads to demonstrate a principle of knot theory. Phrases like "polynomial parameterization" and "perturbation theorem" trip off their tongues. The others pay close attention, interrupting with questions that show their facility with the concepts being discussed. Periodically an arcane math joke provokes laughter. While kicking off a summer weekend with group presentations of mathematics research might not be everyone's idea of a good time, these people appear to be having a blast. If you happened to pass by, you might ask yourself, who are these people and why are they here?

Every summer since 1988, a group of Mount Holyoke math professors, including Davidoff, Alan Durfee, Professor of Mathematics on the John Steward Kennedy Foundation, and math professor and dean of faculty Don O'Shea, has worked with college students from all over the country under the auspices of the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. It's an opportunity for scholars to pursue their own research and for talented students to work closely with mathematicians on projects they would not otherwise come across in their course work. The program is highly selective; this year, more than 200 students applied for 13 spaces.

O'Shea has participated in the REU program since the beginning, working with students on challenging aspects of topology, including knot theory. "The students are great. They come from all over. We love doing it," O'Shea said. "We work on problems that people at other schools are interested in." Davidoff, a number theorist, has also worked with REU students since the program's inception. "It's one of the best things we do, for the students and for ourselves," she said. "I work very intensely with them. They help keep me focused. Every morning they're in the classroom saying, 'What do we do now?' "

Typically, the students meet with their professors for several hours in the morning, break for lunch, then work on their own in the afternoon. The day ends with informal socializing over tea and cookies. On Friday afternoons, they meet to present their work in progress. The group, eight women and five men, are staying in North Mandelle Hall. The students enjoy being in such a highly talented and motivated group of mathematicians. Just two weeks into the eight-week program, they've already become a close-knit group in and out of the classroom. "We shop together, eat together. There's a lot of bonding going on," said Kat Shultis, a senior at Scripps College who is working with Davidoff.

Related Links:

MHC Department of Mathematics and Statistics

National Science Foundation