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Undergraduate research program opens students' eyes


September 15, 2008

After Helme Castro spent eight weeks studying mathematics and theoretical biology at ASU this summer, and completing a research 
project titled "A Cyclical Model Approach to the Nemesis of Consciousness: Alzheimer's," which modeled biological dynamics of 
Alzheimer’s, he had a starling conclusion:

"I can do anything."

Castro, a Native American from Ecuador whose first language is Quecha, could be the poster student for ASU's annual Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute's Summer Undergraduate Research Program.

MTBI, directed by Carlos Castillo-Chavez, brings between 24-30 undergraduate students to the Tempe campus for a rigorous course of 
study and research, with the purpose of motivating minority students -- 
including women -- to consider graduate study in mathematics and 
theoretical biology. 


This year's students hailed from across the United States and 
came from as far away as India, Korea and South Africa. Each U.S. student 
receives room and board and a $3,000 stipend.

Classes are the typical graduate-level courses with an emphasis in math/biology, said Shanae Blunt, MTBI Coordinator.

In addition to 
taking classes, students team up for research projects on topics of 
their choosing.

The projects this year had such titles as "A Mechanism 
for Stabilizing Oscillations in Certain Nonlinear Systems Possessing 
Different Time Scales”; “The Effects of Estrogen and Chemotherapy on the 
Dynamics of Invasive Carcinoma of Breast Cancer Patients”; and “The 
Effects of Maternal Age on the Prevalence of Autism.”

Following a colloquium at ASU where they shared their research, the students traveled with their posters to Montreal, Canada, to present 
the work to their peers and science researchers at the Society for 
Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) conference.

"Several posters 
won awards of recognition," Blunt said. "Taking the students to compete 
against their peers encourages them to think about a doctoral degree. A 
lot of students don't think about graduate school."

When the students 
were asked what they learned after the eight weeks was over, "ninety 
percent said that they never thought they could do such work," said 
Blunt. “They’ve never had the opportunity, and they've never been 
challenged.

"The quality of the research work easily compares to that of a MS thesis and has often resulted in refereed publications at leading journals. The National Science Foundation, The National Security 
Agency, the Alfred T Sloan Foundation and the Office of the Provost at 
ASU have been strong supporter of these efforts.”

MTBI's research experience has helped ASU recruit 35 students for its 
graduate programs--a group that currently includes 22 students in the 
new degree in applied mathematics in the life and social sciences and 10 
in the mathematics, statistics and mathematics education.

Castillo-Chavez brought MTBI with him in 2004 when he came from Cornell 
University to ASU. In its first 12 years, MTBI sent 153 students to graduate school, with 120 of those students from underrepresented 
minority groups, and has sent 56 women into PhD programs.

Castro, from 
the northern part of Ecuador, is an ASU student whose mother worked at 
ASU as an outreach coordinator for the Center for Latin American 
Research for three years before returning to Ecuador. He applied for 
MTBI at Castillo-Chavez's urging, and says he is "really happy" that he did.

Not only did he learn that he can stretch academically, but he gained a wider perspective on his major field of study -- material 
science and engineering.

"Prof. Castillo-Chavez wants you to have a 
well-rounded balance in your life. This helped me not to polarize my goals and knowledge. I also made some really good friends."