Six in a Row!
Isaac Martin brings home the U's sixth straight Churchill Scholarship.
For the sixth consecutive year a College of Science student has received the prestigious Churchill Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Isaac Martin, a senior honors student majoring in mathematics and physics, is one of only 17 students nationally to receive the award this year.
Martin’s designation ties Harvard’s six-year run of consecutive Churchill Scholars (1987-1992) and is second only to Princeton’s seven-year streak (1994-2000).
“Isaac’s recognition as a Churchill Scholar is the result of years of remarkable discipline and dedication to a field of study that he loves,” said Dan Reed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs.
Martin decided to apply for a Churchill Scholarship as a freshman, after meeting for lunch with Michael Zhao, a 2017 Churchill Scholar who unexpectedly passed away in 2018.
“I am positively delighted and quite flabbergasted to receive the scholarship,” Martin says, “but I wish I could phone Michael to thank him for making the opportunity known to me. His legacy lives on in the undergraduate program of the math department here at Utah, where many others like me have greatly benefited from the example he set.”
Martin, a recipient of an Eccles Scholarship and a 2020 Barry Goldwater Scholarship, remembers as a kindergartener trying to write down the biggest number in existence and, as an eighth grader, suddenly understanding trigonometry after hours of reading on Wikipedia.
“That sensation of understanding, the feeling that some tiny secret of the universe was suddenly laid bare before me – that’s something I’ve only felt while studying math and physics, and it’s a high I will continue to chase for the rest of my life,” he says.
Books by Carl Sagan and Jim Baggott also kindled his love of math and physics, and after several years of self-directed study in middle and high school and a year at Salt Lake Community College, Martin enrolled at the U as a mathematics and physics double major.
After early undergraduate experiences in the research labs of physics professors Vikram Deshpande and Yue Zhao, Martin found himself gravitating more toward mathematics. He completed a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at UC Santa Barbara studying almost Abelian Lie groups, which have applications in cosmology and crystallography, under Zhirayr Avetisyan. This experience resulted in Martin’s first research paper. He later completed another REU at the University of Chicago.
“This research was incredibly rewarding because while it applied to physics, the work itself was firmly rooted in the realm of pure math.” Martin says.
Returning to Utah, Martin worked with professors Karl Schwede and Thomas Polstra to study F-singularities, and developed this work into a single-author paper and his currently-in-progress honors thesis with professor Anurag Singh.
“I would not be where I am today without the incredible faculty at Utah and their willingness to devote time to undergraduates,” Martin says.
At Cambridge, Martin hopes to study algebraic geometry, number theory and representation theory (“in that order,” he says) in pursuit of a master’s degree in pure mathematics.
“I’m particularly interested in learning as much as I can about mirror symmetry, which I intend to make my essay topic,” he adds. “I also plan to drink a lot of tea and to buy one of those Sherlock Holmes coats. I will also begrudgingly begin using the term ‘maths’ but I promise to stop the instant I board a plane back to the U.S. in 2022.”
After he returns from Cambridge, Martin plans to earn a doctoral degree in pure mathematics and enter academia, using his experiences in many different educational systems including U.S. and British public schools, homeschooling and online learning, to broaden opportunities for students from a diversity of backgrounds.
“My past has molded me into who I am today,” he says, “and I hope I can use my experiences to create programs in STEM for opportunity-starved students, whether they are held back due to non-traditional schooling or to socio-economic factors.”
by Paul Gabrielsen - First Published in @theU
How did you become interested in math?
I’ve always gravitated toward STEM subjects even in elementary school. In college, I was exposed to various subjects but a common language each subject used was math. I’m a curious student and hungry to consume as much knowledge as possible. Math is a universal language that allows me to communicate with those in different fields and tells me how things work. Math has allowed me to explore other subjects and influences the way I interact with problems—from social sciences to applied sciences and engineering.
What kind of internship did you have while at the U? How did you get it? What did you like about it?
At the beginning of 2020, I started interning for the Pharmacotherapy Outcomes Research Center (PORC) at the University of Utah College of Pharmacy. I applied using the College of Science internship page. I loved interning with the PORC because it allowed me to engage in computational mathematics, work in pharmacology, and interact with different data science and statistical analysis techniques. The team I worked with was performing a correlational study between medication types and bile-duct cancers. I was able to work on the entire computing and mathematics aspect of the study and learn some cool chemistry along the way. My favorite part of the internship was learning how to access databases and interpret the information using data analysis.
You finished your bachelor’s degree and are now in graduate school at the University of California, Irvine. What are you studying?
I entered UC Irvine last fall to begin my graduate studies in mathematics. Graduate school is a whole new challenge but it’s such an enjoyable challenge! My coursework has really taught me to think in new ways, and I’m able to explore new areas of mathematics. At the moment, my favorite class is abstract algebra because it’s a whole new area of math I’ve never been exposed to. I think the online learning part of graduate school has presented learning curves but they’re interesting learning curves.
I’d like to continue my graduate studies in mathematics and get a Ph.D., whether that’s returning to the U. or staying here at home in Southern California.
Is there an area of research that interests you in math? What do you like about it?
I’m interested in applied and computational mathematics. More specifically, I’m interested in applying computational mathematics to data science and machine learning. Applied and computational mathematics explores modeling and/or simulating systems using computers and various mathematical subjects, such as numerical methods, inverse problems, etc. What I like about applied and computational mathematics is that it allows me to be an all-around researcher and engage and contribute to different fields.
Long-term career plans?
After my graduate studies are completed, I’d like to pursue a career in robotics, focusing primarily on research and development in machine learning and artificial intelligence.
How did you become interested in math?
I had an exceptional math teacher in high school. He had a great sense of humor and genuinely cared about all of his students. He also loved math and it was apparent in his teaching. His lessons were both fun and interesting. My enjoyment prompted me to take calculus and decide to study math further. My interest in math has only continued to grow.
How did you get your internship?
My math advisor, Angie Gardiner, told me about the College of Science Internship Program, and I applied for some positions. I was hired as a sports science intern for University of Utah Athletics. The people I worked with were great, and they all made me feel like part of the team.
My first project was to transform ForceDecks data. ForceDecks is a system for analyzing an athlete’s performance and to make assessments. The data from ForceDecks has a unique format that’s difficult to use in statistical programming languages like R and Python. My job was to develop a tool to fix this issue. I used Excel and VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) to create an automated tool for transforming the data into a user-friendly format.
My second project was to analyze the ForceDecks data. Now that it had a better format, I used R to analyze the data. The purpose of the analysis was to detect athlete asymmetries and possible injury risks. I generated statistics, tables, and plots. These projects made use of both my statistical and programming skills. I enjoyed this internship because I love applying math and computer science in interesting and impactful ways. Because of this internship, I have since become interested in quantitative medicine.
You’re involved in the Directed Reading Program. What is it?
The Directed Reading Program is a mentoring program between graduate and undergraduate students, who work together on a reading project in mathematics. Any student can sign up for the program, regardless of their level in math. I heard about it through Math Department announcements, and I’m so happy I did. My graduate student mentor is awesome! We’ve read about differential equations and basic mathematical biology. Currently, we’re reading about partial differential equations.
What year are you?
I’m a junior and plan on graduating in the spring of 2023. I’m taking an extra year since I’m doing a double major with computer science. My interest in computer science started when I took some CS courses as part of my math major. After learning some of the basics of CS, I began to wonder what was out there. Since then, I’ve become excited about theoretical computer science, as well as image processing and computer vision. Studying computer science has made me better at math and vice versa. Although math is the subject I love most, I think studying CS gives me a different perspective on mathematical problems. I also love learning about computing for its own sake.
What about career plans?
I’m planning on doing a Ph.D. in math, but I’m still narrowing down my research interests. I’m deciding between pure and applied math because I enjoy things like applied mathematical biology, but I also just love math problems on their own. In addition to math bio, I’m interested in partial differential equations. I’m excited to learn about the theory behind PDEs, including real analysis, functional analysis, and Sobolev spaces.
Hobbies or interests outside of math?
I started studying Muay Thai (Thai boxing) when I was 13. Muay Thai is like kickboxing, except with elbows and knees. I was taking classes at a gym for about three years, but now I do it just for fun/exercise at home on a punching bag. I think martial arts are awesome for learning things like discipline and self-confidence.
I also love film—my favorite film is Good Will Hunting, which is pretty typical for a math nerd! I love it because it has a math genius, a great love story, and it’s about triumphing over difficult challenges. I enjoy most film genres—anything from romance to horror to documentaries.
I’m new to snowboarding, and I really like it. My favorite resort (for now) is Brighton. Currently, my favorite video game is CSGO(Counter-Strike: Global Offensive). I don’t play a lot of games because school keeps me busy, but in the past I’ve loved playing Skyrim, Call of Duty, and Halo.
I’ve wanted to build my own computer for years, and I finally did it for the first time a few months ago. I use it for school, work, and for intensive tasks that my laptop just can’t handle. Building it made me really happy!
“As a child I always seemed to have an interest in animals,” says Brennan Mahoney, HBS’20, “and originally I wanted to be a veterinarian!” Fate, however, would intervene for this Sandy, Utah native.
When he was ten years old Mahoney’s father had a massive heart attack in the left anterior descending artery (LAD), what’s colloquially called the “widow-maker” because when it is blocked it often results in the patient’s death. His father survived thanks to the “herculean efforts,” of the medical team.
“The work of the doctors and how they treated my family throughout the period of his recovery,” he says, “… turned my interests in biology towards its applications in the field of medicine.” Mahoney’s father would eventually receive a heart transplant nearly two years to the date of the attack, and Mahoney would later enroll in pre-med at the University of Utah where, when he’s not studying, he enjoys playing the guitar and piano, cooking, hiking, (“This is Utah, of course,” he says) … and following Ute football.
The summer after his freshman year, Mahoney worked toward his certification as a nursing assistant (CNA) so that he could start gaining clinical experience. “I worked as a home health aide in many different contexts,” he explains, “but mostly dealt with people who had neurological disorders or injuries.” It was during this time that he met a client who, prior to his injury, had worked as a researcher, and the experience pushed Mahoney to look for opportunities in a neuroscience lab. At the same time, Mahoney also worked as a tutor at West High School in Salt Lake City.
Enter Sophie Caron, professor in the School of Biological Sciences who at the time held the endowed Mario Capecchi Chair, named after Utah’s Nobel laureate who holds joint appointments in SBS and Human Genetics at the U. Caron’s lab studies multisensory integration (MI), a process by which brains integrate sensory information into a comprehensive picture of their environment.
“For the study of this,” reports Mahoney who graduated with honors last summer but continues working in the Caron lab as a technician, we “used a brain area known as the mushroom body of [the fruit fly] D. melanogaster as a model.” The Caron team characterized the connection of neurons from multiple sensory modalities using a technique known as GFP reconstitution across synaptic partners or GRASP for short. “With knowledge of the patterns underlining MI, this logic could be applied to more complex brains,” says Mahoney, including, potentially, the human brain.
The research culminated in a first publication for Mahoney and his undergraduate colleague Miles Jacob, also credited as a co-author. The article, which made the cover of the journal Cell Reports highlights fundamental differences in the way associate brain centers, notably the mushroom body, integrate sensory information and converge in higher order brain centers. The findings are built on previous work from the Caron lab that described a pathway conveying visual information from the medulla to the ventral accessary calyx of the mushroom body. “[O]ur study,” reads the article abstract, “defines a second, parallel pathway that is anatomically poised to convey information from the visual system to the dorsal accessary calyx.”
It is these kinds of scientific findings that inspire a young researcher like Brennan Mahoney to keep going. His ambition, in fact, is to apply to an MD/PhD program where he can continue in research that can help health professionals practice the good work that he witnessed first-hand when his father was singularly under their care.
"The efforts of my father's medical team allowed him to live so that he could continue to raise me and my two brothers and continue to live a happy and full life to this day. I hope to be able to help people in that same capacity, be it through direct patient care or through the findings of my future research."
The School of Biological Sciences regularly grants the Research Scholar Award to deserving undergraduate researchers like Brennan Mahoney. You can support these scholarships through a donation here.
by David Pace
undergraduate research opportunities
The College of Science has a long tradition of exceptional research. Working in a lab is one of the best experiences you can pursue as a College of Science student. Faculty across campus are in need of your skills and can provide you with hands-on training to strengthen your abilities as a researcher. Students across campus are participating in cutting-edge research that is making an impact on daily lives. Undergraduate students have many opportunities to participate in research in the College, as well as opportunities on the Health Sciences (Medical) Campus. Undergraduate research opportunities can come in the form of:
- structured research methods or project-based research courses (Science Research Initiative, department-based courses);
- research under the mentorship of faculty, graduate students, or research staff;
- engagement through the Office of Undergraduate Research.
The best time to start your research is now! Students can find a wide variety of opportunities in their major or in a topic that interests them.
Where to start? Current professors are a great resource - they can connect you to research labs and faculty peers. College departments maintain a list of open opportunities, and your academic advisor or college internship coordinator can help you reach out to find opportunities.
Live on campus in a Science Community
One way to deepen your engagement at the U is to live in a College of Science Themed Community: College of Science First Year Floor at Kahlert Village or the Crocker Science House on Officers Circle. These communities are designed to bring students with similar interests, majors, goals, and experiences together.
College of Science First Year Floor
Kahlert Village is the newest residential community on campus and is home to approximately 990 first year students. The building features double and single rooms in cluster and suite-style configurations. Kahlert Village is centrally located on campus, includes a full-service dining facility, and a variety of classroom and study space available for students. A meal plan is required in this living area.
If you are a first year student pursuing a degree in the College of Science the Science First Year Floor is an excellent opportunity for you. Residents support each other through the rigors of their coursework while deepening their connection to the College of Science faculty, alumni, staff, and opportunities. Resident Advisors are science students who can help mentor you through your academic career.
Crocker Science House
Nestled in Officers' Circle, at the base of the Wasatch foothills and the Shoreline Trail, the Crocker Science House provides a unique opportunity for twelve science students to live and learn together in a beautifully restored building once occupied by military officers. Crocker Science Scholars have the opportunity to attend lectures, dinners, and other events with luminaries of Utah's business, science, and academic communities. In 2018, Mario Capecchi joined the students for dinner and ping-pong. A meal plan is required in this living area.
Crocker Science Scholars come from a variety of geographic, cultural, and academic backgrounds, united by a strong drive to succeed in the physical and life sciences. Scholars often find that living in close quarters with students from other disciplines helps them with their own work and encourages them to explore avenues of science they would not have considered otherwise.
Frequently asked questions
Housing is full for 2022-23 academic year. Application for 2023-24 opens early 2023.
Complete the Housing & Residential application and select the College of Science First Year Floor as your preferred Themed Community by the priority deadline of March 10.
Complete the Housing & Residential application and select the Science First Year Floor as your preferred Themed Community by the priority deadline of March 10.
A supplemental application is also required to be considered for the Crocker Science House.
Selection for the College of Science First Year Floor and the Crocker Science House is completed by the College of Science.
Pay your housing bill in monthly installments, rather than a lump sum at once. Payment plan enrollment is is fast and simple.
- No hassle withdrawals are automatically deducted from designated checking or savings account, or charged to a credit card
- Calculate the amount you wish to have in your payment plan by using the payment estimator tool
No scholarship is currently available for the College of Science First Year Floor.
Students accepted to reside in the Crocker Science House receive a scholarship to assist with housing expenses, making this opportunity accessible to a wide range of students.
Women in Mathematics
Last spring, the Math Department’s student chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) planned a conference, with speakers, mini courses, breakout sessions, and professional development panels. About 60 participants were expected. Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit in March, everything changed, and the conference was canceled.
Despite the setback, the chapter still moved forward and will host a series of online activities and communications for attendees. In recognition of these remarkable efforts, the chapter was recently selected as the winner of the 2020 AWM Student Chapter Award for Scientific Excellence. Christel Hohenegger, associate professor of mathematics, serves as faculty advisor for the chapter.
"We are very thankful and excited to have won this award and receive national recognition,” said Claire Plunkett, vice president of the chapter for 2020-2021. “This is a national award from the AWM, and we are one of more than a hundred student chapters, so it’s a great honor to be chosen. We feel the award reflects how our chapter's activities have continued to grow and gain momentum over the past several years, and we’re excited to continue to sponsor events and expand our activities.”
For the academic year, the chapter has invited four speakers and all talks will be held on Zoom. Confirmed speakers include Nilima Nigam, professor of mathematics at Simon Fraser University; Kristin Lauter, principal researcher and partner research manager for the Cryptography and Privacy Research group at Microsoft Research; and Christine Berkesch, associate professor of mathematics at the University of Minnesota. The annual conference has been rescheduled for June 2021.
In addition, the chapter will continue to host joint monthly lunch discussions with the SIAM (Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics) student chapter; a professor panel in which faculty research is shared with students; joint LaTeX (a software system for document preparation) workshops held with the SIAM student chapter; a screening of a documentary called Picture aScientist, a discussion co-hosted with other women in STEM groups; and bi-weekly informal social meetings. For more information about the U’s AWM chapter, visit http://www.math.utah.edu/awmchapter/.