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Dean's Medalist combines love of math, programming and astronomy


Dean's Medalist David Ackerman
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April 22, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

David Ackerman chose to attend Arizona State University not only because it was affordable and close to home, but because it offered the opportunity to get involved in research right from the start. His combination of research, contributions to the university and impressive academic record earned him the honor of Dean’s Medalist for the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences this semester.

Ackerman worked as an undergraduate researcher in Wade Van Horn’s biochemistry lab attempting to purify and extract a protein known as TRPM8.

While a biochemistry major, he took mathematics courses on the side because he has always had an interest in math. During his sophomore year, he realized he wasn’t happy with the careers his major was taking him toward so he switched to computational mathematical sciences as his major.

He then joined Sharon Crook’s ICONlab, where he also worked on his research thesis for Barrett, The Honors College. In collaboration with the Van Horn lab, he is building a mathematical and computer model of the TPRM8 channel, an ion channel in a cell in the body, that accurately recreates behavior observed experimentally. The research involves heavy application of numerical methods and scientific computing, two areas he focused on with his upper-division mathematics electives.

He also worked with Devin Schrader in the Center for Meteorite Studies analyzing two meteorites over the course of a year. The research involved the use of photoelectron spectroscopy and data analysis.

Last summer, Ackerman started an internship at Orbital ATK/Northrop Grumman gathering data and entering it into a database for the rocketry company. He finished the work a month early and got to work as a website designer. That led to a part-time position, and now he has landed a spot on a programming development team. He recently received a full-time offer as a programmer and data analyst after graduation, and he plans on accepting it. He hopes to return to school for his master's in a few years.

The Scottsdale, Arizona, native will earn his bachelor’s degree in computational mathematical sciences along with a minor in astronomy. He is appreciative of all the opportunities he had while pursuing his degree in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. 

“The blend of programming and math, along with my astronomy minor, helped me find a job supporting sending rockets into space!”

Ackerman will be graduating this May. We asked him a few questions about his time at ASU.

Question: What is something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

Answer: Particular to math, ASU helped show me a much broader sense of what mathematics is compared to the typically plug-and-chug nature of high school math. Overall, ASU just exposed me to many different people with different perspectives.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Dr. Sharon Crook taught me the whole process of how research is done and how to properly utilize/leverage all tools available. These teachings have proven very useful in my thesis and professional work. Dr. Donald Jones made me truly appreciate the structure and theory of math through his great teaching in MAT371.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?

A: The best piece of advice I would give to someone in school is to just stick with it and don't beat yourself up for not understanding something. Particularly with math, there were many times when something just didn't make sense and I grew frustrated with it. However sticking with it and taking time to first clear my mind before tackling the problem would always help me through it.

Q: What do you like most about mathematics, and your area of concentration?

A: With mathematics, I love to see the answer come together at the end. Seeing all the work and logic combine into a verifiable answer always gives me great satisfaction. I also like the challenge with math. Each problem requires a different set of tools and tricks to solve. For my area of interest, numerical analysis, and computational math, I especially enjoy using methods to find approximate solutions to problems without exact ones. The advancements in computational power and numerical methods allow us to better understand and model phenomena of the real world, a process I did during my thesis of modeling TRPM8 ion channel kinetics.

Q: What do you think is most misunderstood about math by the general public?

A: A lot of people in the general public seem to think math is doing calculations and is something you either get or don't get. Math is an entire toolbox and approach to problem solving, and can be improved through effort and great teachers like most other things.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Noble Library was my go-to studying/work/meeting-friends spot. It is the superior library.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time for fun?

A: Outside of school I enjoy hiking, personal coding projects and amateur astronomy.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would probably put it towards researching Alzheimer's and other dementia illnesses. Although not as large a scale as other problems like the environment, I have had several family members suffer from these horrible mental diseases, and as such they are a personal issue to me.

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