Math, engineering students experience valuable summer internships

Math, engineering students experience valuable summer internships

March 4, 2013
Contact: Mary Moates ‘14, Communications Assistant

With deadlines for summer internship applications nearing, four current Maryville College students have a piece of advice for classmates and friends: Send in your resumes now. Internships are a great way to spend the summer break.

Conducting research, experiments and solving equations firsthand, four Maryville College seniors – Arielle Nivens, ’13, Rachel Hutson ’13, Sarah McGinnis ’13 and Jessica Lyle ’13 – were able to complete competitive internships over the summer at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, Missouri State University and Miami University.

“We have very good outcomes regarding our math and engineering students getting into these competitive summer internships,” said Dr. Maria Siopsis, associate professor of mathematics. “I think that it is a testament to these students and to the mentoring relationships with faculty.”

While working alongside other students and professors, the seniors developed research and teamwork skills that could be further applied in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, as well guidance and insight into their lives after college.

“These experiences are invaluable for our students, whether they go to graduate school or industry,” Siopsis said. “They give students the kind of research and teamwork experiences that will be needed to succeed in any STEM career.”

Nivens participated in a research experience for undergraduates (REU) at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS). Eighteen undergraduates participated in the internship, which was held at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Nivens and the team worked specifically on a project that developed mathematical models of Salmonella transmission in swine farms. The objective was to better understand the factors that favor both the transmissions and resistance of Salmonella to a multidrug.

“Ultimately, if the characteristics and transmission of Salmonella can be modeled, there is possibility for the eventual reduction in pig farms and eventually down the line to pork production and the food that so many of us eat,” Nivens said. “Also, since Salmonella tends to have strong antimicrobial resistance, once a basic model is constructed, extra characteristics can be added to aid eliminating this infectious disease.

Nivens participated in group research daily, as well as lectures in a REU group meeting, where students would attend a lecture or a lunch with other mentors at the institution. Nivens said that the majority of a workday would consist of math coding.

“The best days were when you leave the room for the day and every white board has your handwriting on it,” Nivens said.

Nivens said she was proud to represent Maryville College during her internship, and, as one of the few liberal arts students at NIMBioS, she felt more prepared at both presenting and writing.

Siopsis said that Nivens was a perfect candidate for the REU program at NIMBioS, because she had been exploring topics in mathematical biology for her Senior Study.

“When she was accepted into the program, we were able to direct her first semester of Senior Study to give her some background into the work she would be doing in the summer,” Siopsis said. “What is even better is that being close to NIMBioS means Arielle is able to continue to work with the faculty there, while still finishing her degree at Maryville College.”

(One of the distinctive features of a Maryville education, the Senior Study requirement calls for students to complete a two-semester research and writing project that is guided by a faculty supervisor.)

By studying topics in both mathematics and biology during her internship, Nivens said that NIMBIoS allowed her to leave more knowledgeable about not only mathematics, but also infectious diseases.

“The problem she worked on is a great example of the way mathematics can be applied to problems in other disciplines, to give insight and test hypotheses that would not be easy to do otherwise,” Siopsis said.

Hutson interned at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (Jefferson Lab) in Newport News, Va. She worked on applying Kalman Filters, which are used for filtering noise from data, to the Low Level Radiofrequency (LLRF) system for the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator in order to advance the system.

Hutson said her Summer Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) involved researching control systems engineering, which required extensive knowledge in both engineering and electricity and magnetism physics. She said that MC prepared her for the papers and presentations she had to prepare during her time at the internship, and the science classes she took at the College were necessary for succeeding in the research involved in the SULI.

“Rachel is not only intelligent, but she works very hard and is very motivated. During her time at Maryville College, she has taken advantage of every learning opportunity she could. This is why she was able to secure a spot in the SULI at Jefferson Lab,” Siopsis said. “Her experience there has propelled her forward in terms of her research interests, so I am excited to see where she lands for graduate school and beyond.”

Hutson said that during her internship, she researched control systems engineering and Kalman Filters daily. She took part in presentations for interns on a variety of topics related to the lab and specific research being conducted there. She also worked on a personal project daily, which consisted of modeling and running simple systems on Simulink, a MATLAB driven program.

“There were very few people there from a liberal arts college,” Hutson said. “It was nice to be able to contribute to the diversity of the group.”

Hutson said that she was challenged by the internship, because the majority of her projects involved upper-level engineering with which she was not familiar.

“It was overwhelming at first, but with all of the help that I received from others, I was able to work through my project and learn what it is like to work in a research setting,” Hutson said.

Before her internship, Hutson said that she knew she wanted to go to graduate school, but was not sure what she wanted to do with her education. After she worked in Jefferson Lab over the summer, she found that she wanted to apply her skills within the research field.

“At this internship, I was able to improve on collaboration and the process of research and presenting. I was also able to meet many people in close to the same fields of study as I am, which is great for collaboration,” Hutson said. “Also, there is a possibility that the research you do can be built on later, be appealing to graduate schools and also help you decide on some of the things you want to do in life.”

McGinnis participated in an undergraduate research program with math professors at Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo. During the time she was there, she investigated a problem linking the theoretical mathematical fields of abstract algebra and graph theory.

“We learned how to write up our results, and we gave a presentation at the end, explaining what we had learned and discovered this summer,” McGinnis said. “We were able to share with the rest of the students in the program what we worked on.”

McGinnis said that the College prepared her for the internship at the university.

“Starting my Senior Study really helped, because I had the background knowledge necessary to do the research,” McGinnis said. “Math research is very challenging. I had not really been exposed to what exactly it entailed, but I felt like I was prepared for the challenge, because MC has challenged me.”

Dr. Jennifer Bruce, MC associate professor of mathematics, said that, through this program, McGinnis was able to experience the process of working on a real, unsolved mathematical problem.

“It has helped shape her decisions on the types of graduate programs she’s interested in and the type of career she wants to pursue as a mathematician,” Bruce said.

The internship at Missouri State University allowed McGinnis to experience what math research was really like, she said, and if it was a career that she would want to pursue, exposing her to math that she had not witnessed before. She hopes that the internship will make her a candidate for graduate programs, where she can pursue research.

“I developed my critical thinking and problem solving skills. I also learned how to learn. Math research is different from sitting in a class and learning the material,” McGinnis said. “This summer I really learned and strengthened those critical thinking skills. I was able to come and put those skills into practice with finishing up my Senior Study.”

McGinnis said that she would recommend that other math majors complete a summer internship.

“There are so many areas of mathematics,” McGinnis said. “Internships allow students to see new areas of mathematics, and they can also see if research is something that they want to do. It has so many benefits for everyone.”

Lyle participated in the Summer Undergraduate Mathematical Science Research Institute (SUMSRI) program hosted by the Department of Mathematics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. According to SUMSRI’s website, program administrators sought “talented undergraduate students who are interested in pursuing advanced degrees in the mathematical sciences.”

A mathematics major at MC, Lyle was able to study algebra, discrete mathematics and statistics during her time at SUMSRI. She said that the College prepared her for the research program, because she was confident in her presentational skills.

“I had adequate knowledge on the subject matters, and what I did not know I was able to pick up very quickly,” Lyle said. “I believe Maryville did a great job stretching my mind and preparing me.”

During the first half of the summer program, students in the program attended classes during the day and spent their evenings working on individual research problems. The second half of the summer was devoted entirely to research. Lyle performed a spatial study concerning colorectal cancer mortality that covered every county within the United States. The students presented their findings at the end of the summer.

“The internship helped me to understand more of what I want to do in life and narrow my future career goals,” Lyle said. “It was a wonderful and very educational summer. I made many memories and life-long friends.”

Bruce said that the program not only introduced Lyle to research projects, but also made her aware of other internship and graduate school opportunities.

“It helped them work on technical writing skills, and it provided funding for the students to attend a national math conference to present their research,” Bruce said.

Bruce said that Lyle and other students from her internship had the opportunity to present their research at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Diego, Calif., in January.

Lyle said she would recommend a summer research program like SUMSRI to any student.

“It brings you out of your comfort zone and into an atmosphere to grow and excel,” Lyle said.

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2016 semester is 1,197.