Skip to main content

Students share research work at international conference

July 13, 2009

Arizona State University’s commitment to providing meaningful research opportunities to undergraduate students was on display in June when two West campus students made a trip to the sixth annual Conference on Frontiers in Applied and Computational Mathematics (FACM ’09). Joe Doggett and Anthony Witten weren’t simply attendees at the event held at the New Jersey Institute of Technology; they presented details of the work they are engaged in with faculty members in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

Doggett and Witten are pursuing degrees through New College’s Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, and their research project involves applying mathematical modeling to gene functions in cells. Working as members of a team with biology and mathematics professors, the students aim to identify predictable patterns in the way genes in yeast cells respond to changes in the concentration of calcium outside the cell. Their goal is to devise mathematical models to predict how genetic changes in a cell will affect the cell’s responses.

“Ultimately this could serve as a model for processes in human cells,” says Pamela Marshall, assistant professor of biology, one of the New College faculty members with whom Doggett and Witten are collaborating. Mathematics professors Erika Camacho and Stephen Wirkus also are involved in the project.

“For example, contractions in the human heart respond to calcium concentration changes,” Marshall says. “While this work is in its preliminary stages, someday it could point the way to treatments for heart disease.”

At the New Jersey conference, the two undergraduate students presented a poster detailing the project’s goals and current status. This year’s conference focused on mathematical biology, with sessions focusing on topics including neuroscience, ecology, biophysics, and biostatistics.

“I had the pleasure of interacting with scientists from around the world, and I made connections with researchers from India and Russia who are pursuing similar lines of study,” Witten says. “I am maintaining active correspondence with both of them and am learning more than ever.”

Witten, a 2006 graduate of Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix, aspires to attend medical school after completing his bachelor’s degree in life sciences with a chemistry minor in 2010. “I came to ASU’s West campus as an exploratory student with no idea what I wanted to do,” he says. “My research with Dr. Marshall helped me determine that I want to combine patient interaction with research in a specialty of medicine, which is not something I had considered prior to my involvement in this project.”

Doggett, who previously earned degrees in political science and public policy, returned to school after employment experience in project management. “Through my involvement in this research project, I have found the type of work that I find meaningful and fulfilling and that I want to pursue for the rest of my career,” he says.

After completing his degree in applied mathematics in 2010, Doggett hopes to gain entry to a graduate program at ASU’s Tempe campus that will enable him to conduct research with Yang Kuang, a professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. The School is part of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Kuang is the principal investigator for a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Undergraduates in Biology and Mathematical Sciences (UBM) program, whose goal is to better prepare undergraduate students to pursue graduate study and careers in fields that integrate the mathematical and biological sciences. Doggett and Witten are receiving UBM stipends to work on the mathematical modeling project with Marshall and her West campus colleagues.

“The opportunity to have New College students involved through the UBM grant was instrumental in making this research project happen,” says Marshall, who has mentored more than 25 undergraduate students, many of whom have gone on to medical school, since arriving at ASU’s West campus in 2003.

“We want to provide undergraduate students with authentic research experiences, so they will be adequately prepared for graduate school,” Marshall says. “Otherwise, we can’t expect students to become the next generation of scientists and mathematicians that our society needs.”

Information about academic programs offered by ASU’s Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences may be found at