Student Spotlight

Unity College Student Wins National Math Prize
Unity College Student Kari Lemelin Wins Top Math Prize

Kari Lemelin ’14, a Unity College Wildlife Biology major, was awarded the Janet L. Anderson Prize at the most recent meeting of MathFest, the national meeting of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), held in Hartford, Connecticut. The Janet L. Anderson Prize is given for recognition of outstanding achievement in mathematical and computational biology, and is awarded by BIO SIGMAA, a Special Interest Group of the MAA focused on pedagogy (teaching) in undergraduate mathematical and computational biology.  It is one of the few cash awards for a student research presentation.

A Focus on Creativity and Preparation
“This award recognizes the ability of a student to not just use the language of mathematics to solve problems, but also to convey that to the general public, and to understand its implications,” noted Dr. Carrie Diaz Eaton, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Unity College.  “This is exactly the kind of student outcomes we are looking to foster, in particular, with the implementation of our sustainability science framework.”

Unity College is the first institution of higher learning in the United States to adopt sustainability science as central to its curricular framework.  Sustainability science is the leading edge of 21st century transdisciplinary (collaborative) environmental problem solving, including the mitigation of global climate change.

The unique nature of Lemelin’s approach was revealed in its title: “Modeling a Zombie Outbreak at Unity College.”  A judge from the University of Northern Iowa remarked that the judges were profoundly impressed with her work, making it likely that Lemelin would have won a different award if she had not won the Anderson Prize.

Eaton defined the data collection of Lemelin’s project as “the fun part – it’s a game.”

“Modeling just to create a model isn’t helpful,” Diaz Eaton explained.  “Using data to inform an appropriate model selection allows us to interpret the implications of the data we collect.  We can then use this understanding to refine our models and the understanding of our system.”

In the case of Humans v. Zombies as a game, Lemelin modeled the game as a disease. 

“If zombies look to start overtaking the campus, we look for indicators in the comparison of the data with the model and intervene if necessary.  This has real-life disease management applications.”

“An award at this level is a great honor,” said Diaz Eaton.  “It means that Kari was chosen as the best student of research mathematical biology within the MAA student paper sessions at the National Meeting of the MAA.  Other past winners have come from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, SUNY Stony Brook, University of Utah, and more.  These are research colleges and universities that we are presenting alongside.”

Sustainability Science is Key Aspect of Curriculum
Diaz Eaton pointed out that the transdisciplinary skills that Lemelin demonstrated are emblematic of the sustainability science approach, which breaks down silos between the disciplines and more effectively models real world problem solving than a more narrowly focused approach.

Lemelin’s presentation also demonstrated an outstanding ability to conduct independent research, demonstrate group leadership skills, be creative, and communicate effectively, Diaz Eaton says.

“Kari stood out as being able to answer audience questions with insight and fluency,” she added.  “I believe that her experience at Unity College as a Wildlife Biology major gave her the insight into why these mathematical investigations are important.”

As Lemelin’s project advisor, Diaz Eaton says that she has been able to take the zombie concept and put a lot of creative thought into making it work, and the project came together as an award winner because of Lemelin’s superior work ethic.

Commitment to Success and Personal Attention from Faculty
Lemelin is also the recipient of the Center for Biodiversity Research Award during the Fall 2012 Unity College Student Conference, a showcase for the best creative work and student research.  She has also pursued research work with Diaz Eaton over during the summer months.

“Kari was not afraid to learn new techniques required in programming, and at all steps conducted comprehensive literature review and background readings,” Diaz Eaton said.  “She took responsibility for the running of the Humans v. Zombies game, and for all of the data collection.  Lastly, she learned to work with an entirely new programming language, MATLAB, to explore phenomenon in the system.  Now she is writing protocol that students at other colleges can use.  Most of all she is enthusiastic about all of this hard work.”

Diaz Eaton sees recognition of a student as validation of her career choice and development of the mathematics curriculum at Unity College.

“As her research and academic advisor of course I am thrilled with her work and the recognition of her work,” Diaz Eaton stated.  “I have thought a lot about how to align the mathematics curriculum with the mission of Unity College and framework that sustainability science provides.  Seeing these research ideas bloom under the cultivation of my undergraduates is extremely rewarding.”

A special strength of Unity College is the ability that faculty have to get to know students early in their college careers, Diaz Eaton says.

“The mathematics department services a larger and singular college mission and student outcomes, and this means that the curriculum can be aligned in a way that is most productive for students,” Diaz Eaton stated.

Currently, Lemelin is hard at work on a second round of data collection, running a new Humans v. Zombies game.  The game will begin in mid-October and culminate in the Halloween Dance at Unity College, where winners will be announced.

Learning, Community and Engagement Define Campus Life
Humans v. Zombies is a popular diversion at Unity College, with many students participating in a sprawling, well-planned and attended game that covers the campus and parts of the surrounding woodlot.  In addition to pursuing academic projects like the one that earned Lemelin a national award, students have filmed and posted videos on YouTube, often with the involvement of faculty and staff.

Friday, October 18, 2013