Why this Rochester math professor is championing undergraduate research all year: NewsCenter


January 20, 2022

Rochester math professor Alex Iosevich (left), pictured with PhD student Charlotte Aten ’17, ’19 (MS), says he ‘no longer believes[s] undergraduate research experience is optional. I think it should be a fundamental part of the curriculum. Aten got into research as an undergraduate student in Rochester, in a program that Iosevich co-directs and is now one of the program’s instructors. (Photo University of Rochester/J. Adam Fenster)

Alex Iosevich has seen firsthand how research experiences build confidence and independent thinking in his students.

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One of Charlotte Aten’s first research experiences at the University of Rochester helped her in ways she never imagined at the time.

Aten, who grew up in Groveland, New York, transferred to college in 2014 after earning an associate’s degree in mathematics from Monroe Community College.

The following summer, she joined 15 other students in an Undergraduate Research Experience (REU) program led by Mathematics Department faculty members Alex Iosevich, Jonathan Pakianathan, and Giorgis Petridis.

“It resulted in my first paper,” says Aten, who graduated with an undergraduate degree in 2017 and is now a doctoral student in Pakianathan’s research group. “We had groups that did experimental calculations and other groups that were more purely mathematical, and we took turns sharing our results. It was a really good process.

His participation in REU laid the foundation for many of his later research and teaching experiences. In effect, the student has become the teacher: For the past two summers, Aten has been an instructor for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Tripods REU and STEM for ALL programs that Iosevich directs for the Georgen Institute for Data Science. .

With Iosevich’s encouragement and support, Aten has expanded his mathematical research interests into applications that include data science and machine learning. Additionally, she turned those interests into new projects for Rochester undergraduates.

“Alex creates a very positive and fun environment,” says Aten. “First of all, he definitely meets the students where they are. He’s also really good at seeing how he can help them do their best in their particular situation, which I think explains why he’s so accessible and has such a large number of students.

“Search is not something you can turn on and off”

Iosevich, Fellow of the American Mathematical Society, has published over 130 papers. He has received over $2 million in grants to fund his research interests, including combinatorics, number theory, classical analysis, and most recently neural networks, a computing framework that mimics how the human brain works. . He currently advises eight of the department’s 27 doctoral students.

But Iosevich’s passion is creating research opportunities for undergraduates. More recently, these have included the Tripods REU 2021 Summer Program, a STEM Associate Summer Program for All, and a Data Science Fall Undergraduate Research Program (including for students wishing to pursue their summer research projects).

“I no longer believe that undergraduate research experience is optional. I think it has to be a fundamental part of the program,” says Iosevich. “And it can’t be relegated to the summer. Search is not something you can turn on and off. Students must continue to do this during the fall and spring semesters, even if they cannot do it full time.

Why is research participation so important for undergraduate students? Too often, Iosevich says, his industry contacts tell him that even straight college graduates enter the workplace ill-prepared to think independently or quickly pivot and learn new skills to complete an assignment.

“The boss gives them the task of creating this or that, using this or that package,” says Iosevich. “They say to the boss, ‘I didn’t learn this technique in my data science class and I’ve never seen this package.’ And the boss says, ‘It’s not my problem.’

Undergraduate research experiences, however, can give students the confidence and independent thinking skills needed to handle these kinds of scenarios, Iosevich says. By extension, equipping students with such skills benefits the reputation of universities that not only emphasize undergraduate research, but also invest in making such opportunities available to all students. In the humanities and social sciences as well as in STEM, he says.

Notably, Iosevich does not pressure his undergraduate students to produce research papers, despite the emphasis many program administrators might place on this outcome. “I introduce students to research techniques: how to research literature, how to investigate things, how to determine whether the problem is open or not, how to take something that is known, say in data science, and make small changes – and if that leads to a research paper, that’s great,” he says. “But forcing publications can be very detrimental.”

Iosevich has been practicing what he has preached for more than 25 years, dating back to mentoring high school and undergraduate students as a new assistant professor at Wright State University, then Georgetown, University of Missouri. and Columbia, before coming to Rochester in 2010.

Throughout his career, “one of my motivations has been to get more women and underrepresented minorities interested in mathematics,” he says.

This year, a university transition scholarship relieved Iosevich of his classroom teaching obligations so he could lead the research programs. In other years, however, Iosevich gave his much needed time.

“I love doing this,” he says, acknowledging the colleagues and students who have helped him organize and facilitate undergraduate research programs. In addition to Pakianathan and Petridis, they include Stephen Kleene ’05, assistant professor; Sevak Mkrtchyan, associate professor; current and former visiting assistant professors Emmett Wyman ’13, Ivan Chio and Ayla Gafni, and former undergraduate student Yujia Zhai ’13.

‘That kind of experience on your CV can only help

“Alex is really good at making you do things on your own. He doesn’t spoon-feed his students,” says Mandar Juvekar ’22, a maths and computer science double major from Pune, India.

Juvekar joined one of Iosevich’s independent study groups the summer after his freshman year. Iosevich told the students to start reading a book about ongoing research in combinatorics, an area of ​​mathematics primarily concerned with counting and which tackles a wide range of problems involving algebra, probability theory, topology, and geometry. Students would then apply the techniques described in the book to various problems.

“The preface indicated that the book was intended for students who have at least a first year of higher education in mathematics,” recalls Juvekar. “It was scary because I was a freshman undergrad.”

However, Juvekar soon realized he could look elsewhere – on Google or other textbooks – to learn more about the concepts he needed to use. “Learning to do this is very helpful, and Alex emphasizes that a lot,” says Juvekar, who later participated as both a student and a workshop leader for the Tripods REU.

Michele Martino ’22, a math major from Rome, Italy, has attended Tripods REU for the past two summers. He says Iosevich is “very open to talking with undergraduate students about any kind of math they might be interested in. He’s famous in the department because he tries to involve as many students as possible in his research.” .

It is therefore not surprising that Iosevich received the Outstanding Teacher of the Year award from the Student Association in 2015. He also received outstanding teacher awards or was a finalist at the other three universities where he worked.

Martino, who is doing an independent study with Iosevich this fall on a project involving harmonic analysis, is grateful for the research experience he has gained. “When undergraduates apply for graduate school, having that kind of experience on your resume can only help,” he says. “And you get the chance to work with other students on interesting projects, and with incredible professors who are great mathematicians.”

Martino and Juvekar each plan to pursue doctoral studies after graduation, with Martino focusing on probability theory and its applications in data science and Juvenkar studying computer science. Both say their undergraduate research experiences with Iosevich and other mentors at the University helped them identify areas of interest for advanced study.

Meanwhile, Aten, who is finishing his doctorate this year, is looking for a postdoctoral position, with a view to working in academia. “But I also want to gain experience in real-world applications of math to business, so I’ll be looking for internships,” she says. Not in order to transition into industry, says Aten, but to have “similar relationships to what Alex has, to be able to send students to different companies or connect them to internships.”

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Keywords: Alex Iosevich, Arts and Sciences, Department of Mathematics, Goergen Institute for Data Science, Undergraduate Research

Category: Student life


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