How One Student Group is Changing the Conversation

Stigma and taboo. These are just two things that keep individuals suffering from mental illness from getting help.  “Active Minds” helps promotes mental health awareness, education, and advocacy on college campuses.

The U of R’s chapter of Active Minds hosts a variety of different events ranging from guest speakers to a variety of awareness drives throughout the year in order to encourage a dialogue about mental health between members of the campus community.  Chapter members help to facilitate these conversations as self-proclaimed “stigma fighters,” combating misconceptions and advocating for greater awareness of common mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Stephanie Mejia ’15, a psychology major minoring in International Relations, and one of the club’s co-presidents, said one of her favorite events is an annual art exposition, named “HeART of Disorder.”  “We don’t just advocate for stomping out stigma; we show the community what stigma looks and feels like through various art forms,” she said.

“Prevent a Meltdown” was another program held last year that focused particularly on the student population.  Hosting an ice cream social right before finals week, one of the most stressful weeks of the semester, the student organization partnered with University Health Services in order to pair sweet treats with information about stress-reducing mechanisms.

The “Tell It to the Wall” campaign, which began at the end of October, offers the campus population an anonymous outlet to share their secrets and issues to the public.  The wall, displayed on the third floor of Wilson Commons, is composed of anonymously submitted posts, a la Post Secret.  That same week, Active Minds partnered again with UHS at the Sex and Chocolate Health Fair in order to discuss mental and sexual health.

Co-president Hayley Harnicher ’15, a psychology major with minors in mathematics and business, is thankful for the opportunities that Active Minds has provided her, from serving on the national Student Advisory Committee to the organization’s national office in Washington D.C.  Beyond this, however, she is most grateful for the clarity that the group’s mission provides.  “The best thing I have learned is that taking care of your mental health, or seeking help if needed, is not a weakness and should be commended,” she said.

The Rochester community is no stranger to the costs of overlooking mental health.  Last year, Samuel Freeling, an undergraduate student from Georgetown D.C., ended his own life.  Sam’s mother created Project S.A.M., which hosts an annual 5K Fun Run, the Spike Classic, to provide support and advocacy for those suffering from mental illnesses like depression.

Last year, the money raised by the Spike Classic was used to fund a new track at Sam’s high school, Georgetown Day High School.  This year, funds raised by the run and through their website will go to Active Minds.  The group plans to use the donation to bring the “Send Silence Packing” display to campus.

“It is important for our student group to support a cause that has directly impacted our peers and the U of R community,” said Mejia.  “It is up to us to continue the conversation and make the student body, faculty, staff, and administration aware of the cause and how we can make a difference in the future of our campus.”

If you, or someone you know, is struggling, the CARE Network exists to identify students who may be in distress. Simply fill out a CARE report or set up an appointment with University Counseling Services. Students can call 585-275-3113 to make an appointment.

Photo credit: Helga Weber/Flickr

Lauren Bailey: Star Swimmer is a Shark in the Classroom

Lauren Bailey, a senior majoring in chemical engineering, was one of 10 University scholar-athletes recognized for their abilities “on the field” and in the classroom.

Bailey, from Ossining, NY, holds the University records for the 100 butterfly, 200 butterfly, 200 freestyle, 200 individual medley, and is a part of all the record-holding relay teams.

During the football team’s season opener, she and nine other athletes were presented Garnish Awards during a halftime ceremony. Bailey said she was nervous at first to go out to midfield and accept the award in front of the whole stadium of football fans. “It was definitely never-racking,” she said. “It was a huge honor though. My whole team came out to support me, which was really nice of them. It was super exciting!”

The Garnish Award program was created in honor of Lysle “Spike” Garnish, who consecutively served as an assistant coach for the University’s basketball, baseball, and football teams from 1930-1948.

According to the Athletic Department’s webpage, “Friends of Rochester Athletics, through an alumni committee, reviews nominations of students from varsity teams who have achieved at a high level in both their athletic and academic pursuits through their junior year. From these nominees, a small number are selected as Garnish Scholars.”

It’s definitely not easy

Bailey, who has a GPA of 3.87, says that balancing athletics and academics is “definitely not easy. But I think if you’re really passionate about both things—I really like chemical engineering, and I really like swimming—but I think it’s also about time management,” she said.

“For me, I do homework with a group of people or with my friends, so it makes it more enjoyable. Plus, I don’t really dread doing homework, so that definitely makes it easier to work with other people.”

During her senior year, Bailey says one of her goals is to have fun this season. “I’m really not going to put any pressure on myself,” she claimed. “I want to do well, obviously, but I also want to make sure that I’m really having fun. This is probably the last year I will swim competitively on a college team where we all share a common goal.”

Bailey’s best advice to student athletes? “Don’t stay up too late the night before you have practice in the morning.” According to her, “Mainly you’re here at the University to do well in school and succeed.”

Another important piece of advice Bailey offers is to prioritize, and “make sure to realize when you’re struggling to balance school and swimming, or school and any sport that you’re doing, because you don’t want your academics to slip. Don’t take on too much, though, because it can be a really rigorous schedule, and you want to make sure you have free time to enjoy yourself still,” she says.

In her time here at the U of R, Bailey has taken many classes, but the one in which she learned the most was the chemical engineering class, Reactor Design. Bailey says “It’s a really important class, because it has so many applications with so many jobs, and I think it’s really important to understanding what’s going on. It was definitely challenging, since we did a lot of coding with MatLab, and I’m not excellent at that.” Starting from the most basic reactors, the class covered many fundamental chemical engineering concepts.

This year, the senior says that instead of stressing about swimming times and tests, she wants to “have a good time, and make sure I’m getting done what I need to get done…but I’m definitely going to enjoy myself.”

As graduation gets closer, Bailey says she’ll start looking for chemical engineering positions, and at some point, she may consider getting an MBA.

By Joe Bailey and Monique Patenaude

STEM Initiative Grows to Promote Science Education

By Rei Ramos ‘15
University Communications

A new student organization is hoping to sow the seeds of science throughout the Rochester community.  Dubbed the STEM Initiative, the group focuses on motivating and inspiring young students to pursue education in the “STEM” fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

“Our focus is giving students STEM education at an early age,” said Jenny Yoon ‘16, a microbiology major and one of the organization’s co-founders and current co-president. The group promotes and provides opportunities for science education by offering after-school workshops at area schools that are hands-on, interactive, and free. Making use of undergraduate volunteers, the STEM Initiative’s programming is based on student-created lesson plans. In this sense, co-president George Iwaoka ‘16, who is pursuing degrees in cell and developmental biology and financial economics, views the student group they have created as a grassroots organization that hopes to instill positive change at a local community level.

The duo, both graduates of Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, New Jersey, consider themselves fortunate for their heavy exposure to STEM fields before coming to college. Continuing on at the U of R, a leading school in both STEM education and research, Iwaoka and Yoon found the lack of educational outreach for the sciences problematic. The current substandard state of Rochester area public schools, coupled with the national decline in literacy in scientific fields, motivated the pair to create the group.

Since its initial inception in the fall of 2013, the group has evolved from a small volunteer effort to an organization recognized and funded by the Students’ Association.  Originally funded out of the pockets of its early members, the group has since grown to be able to offer regular biweekly workshops at a local school, complete with funded lesson plans and engaging activities covering subjects ranging from basic physics to computer programming. These structured workshops are planned by students and made possible through the weekly contributions of undergraduate volunteers.  The STEM Initiative currently has 36 student volunteers that have contributed to planning and teaching.

This past spring, STEM exclusively offered workshops at Adlai E. Stevenson School No. 29. “It’s not the best school in terms of math and science,” said Iwaoka.  Located in the 19th ward, School 29 ranks among the lowest in test scores in the state.  They were also cut from the list of schools visited by the university’s Partners in Reading program. The diminishing educational opportunities at this school prompted the STEM Initiative to focus its efforts there.”The kids are really bright,” said Yoon. “It’s great to see that they don’t see themselves as ‘too cool’ for science.”

One of the organization’s first efforts in event programming also turned out to be one of its largest successes.  On April 14th, the group sponsored its first Family Science Day, a free and public science fair.  STEM brought together science-affiliated student groups, area youth, and their families in the Munnerlyn Atrium of Goergen Hall for an interactive and educational experience.  Garnering support from science and engineering associated student groups, Iwaoka and Yoon were able to offer the local community a chance to explore and experience science firsthand.  The event included demonstrations and experiments from campus organizations such as Engineers Without Borders, MERT, and the Baja SAE Team among others.  Drawing in more than 300 attendees and partnering with 23 different organizations, the event was successful in its community outreach and showcase of the sciences.

Looking at the coming year, Iwaoka and Yoon aim to increase the STEM Initiative’s presence in the Greater Rochester Community.  “We really want the Rochester business community to be involved,” said Iwaoka who views the group as a potential liaison for science education.  With Rochester as a leading hub for optics, the group believes that involvement from area companies would open doors for event programming on a larger scale.

That’s not to say that STEM isn’t doing enough on its own to expand.  With more anticipated funding from the SA Government in the fall, as well as through an upcoming Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, the two co-presidents hope to see the group grow to offer more workshops at other area schools and bigger community programming with plans for a “STEM Olympics” that will function as an interactive field day for science.  They also hope to branch out to inspire additional chapters at other universities.  Iwaoka aspires to see the group broaden its influence at a national level in the coming years and similarly hopes to see its message spread abroad.

Through all the responsibilities of starting and developing a student organization, the pair views their work in the past year as worth all of the stress.  “It’s really fun, and the kids are eager to learn,” said Yoon in regards to their workshops.  To her, one of the best parts of this experience has been making personal connections with students.  Similarly, Iwaoka finds value in seeing the impact that the organization’s efforts have made and is excited that he may be helping to produce the next great leaders in the STEM fields. “Somewhere down the line, our work can inspire a young student to pursue a career in science, and that in itself is rewarding.”

Spotlight on Humanities and Natural Sciences Alumni: Dan Richman

richmanName: Dan Richman ’08

Occupation: Graduate student (Johns Hopkins University)

Education (UR and additional): BS (Physics), BA (Music & Mathematics), University of Rochester, 2008

Current city/state of residence: Baltimore, Maryland

Family: Dad is UR 1970 (BS Chemistry), 1975 (PhD Chemistry)

Community activities: Outreach activities in physics and astrobiology

What resources did you use on campus that you recommend current students use?  

Use the libraries! Browse the stacks, in all subject areas, and read a little from books that grab your attention. Move nimbly through this ocean. You can do this as small breaks from your work. And take advantage of the CDs in the Art and Music Library.

What did you do immediately after graduation? How did you decide to take that path?

I went immediately to grad school. I knew before college that I wanted a physics PhD–I wanted that depth of engagement with the subject–but at the end of undergrad it wasn’t clear what specialization I’d pursue. I leaned toward astrophysics, but I knew I should keep options open, so I chose another joint physics-astronomy department like UR’s. Even before I started my first year at Hopkins I started to pursue options in biophysics.

What do you do now and why did you choose this career?

I realized that “structure in the universe” applied to biology as much as it did to astrophysics, and I started to inquire around Hopkins for opportunities to combine physics and biology. Turns out it’s a big area, and I got involved in a multidisciplinary training program. My consistent interest in fundamental principles and intricate form and motion led me finally to the protein science lab I currently work in.

What skills, tools, or knowledge from your major have been most useful to you since graduation?  

In venturing outward from physics into realms of biology and chemistry, all of my basic physics training has been crucial to quickly learn new fields. Statistical mechanics is my bread-and-butter in the land of proteins, and familiarity with quantum mechanics and electromagnetism has let me get deeply into the NMR spectroscopy I use to study proteins.

How do you balance your work and your personal life?

Discipline and flexibility together. When I walk over to campus to spend the day I focus on the work of experiments, data analysis, studying literature, and having conversations about science, but I’m flexible about switching among these things on a whim, to follow my mood or curiosity. I try to protect my evenings so I can run, cook dinner with my girlfriend, and enjoy interests such as music. It’s not strict compartmentalization, just being focused, organized, and nimble.

Where would you like to be in five years?

Doing fundamental research in protein design as a post-doc and starting or joining a company based on designing proteins for pharmaceutical or industrial use, and possibly pursuing this in parallel with or instead of an academic career.

The Elusive Geomechanics Major

By Dan Wang ’14
Univ. Communications

Out of the more than 4,500 full-time undergrads at the University of Rochester, exactly three are pursuing a major in geomechanics. Just who are these brave few?

The trio is made up of very different students: a freshman from Kingston, Jamaica who emphasizes her environmentalism; a junior who went to high school in Rochester and would like to work on an oil platform or for an oilfield services company; and a Take 5 scholar from outside of New York City who would like to do fieldwork to study seismology and geothermal energy.

But first, what kind of degree are they pursuing? The bachelor of science degree in geomechanics is a program run jointly between the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department. An interdisciplinary major, completing geomechanics also means taking classes in math, physics, and chemistry.  Lisa Norwood ’86, ’95, assistant dean of the Hajim School of Engineering and a former geomechenics major, describes the program this way, “The curriculum emphasizes the application of the principles of mechanics to problems associated with the atmosphere, the oceans, and the solid earth.”

Kayon Ellis ’16 has not yet declared her geomechanics (geomech) major, but she’s quite set on pursuing it. Ellis comes by way of Jamaica, and this is her first year living in the United States. A commitment to environmentalism and an analysis of basin sediments in streams prior to coming to Rochester propelled her to study geomechanics. “I find the study of the earth fascinating,” says Ellis. “You just can’t study anything in isolation; you have to analyze the whole system.”

Two years ahead, Michael Grotke ’14 has different goals in mind. Grotke grew up in Tucson, Arizona and attended high school in Rochester. On campus, he works part-time for the Earth and Environmental Science Lab, and is a member of the SA Appropriations Committee. What does he see himself doing? “I hope to use this degree towards a career in the oil and natural gas industry, most likely shale-gas and crude oil exploration.” The companies he’d like to apply his geomech training to include Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, Shell, and Halliburton.

Skipping two more years ahead, the final geomech major is Brian Castro ’12 (T5). Though he had a hard time deciding between studying physics and mechanical engineering, he has embraced the geomech major with vigor. Castro also has extensive experience in fieldwork. Research on geothermal energy took him to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and, as part of an NSF-sponsored program, to work at a geosciences research company in New Zealand. He also conducted seismic research at the University, in Professor Cynthia Ebinger’s lab. Castro’s interests are more academic, and he’d like to further study seismology, geothermal energy, and planetary science.

The major is robust enough to accommodate all of these interests. Dean Norwood sees no shortage of ways to use the geomech major. “Career opportunities include work with the U.S. Geological Survey and with departments of natural resources or environmental protection at the federal, state, and county levels; with the oil and mineral resources industries; and in multidisciplinary private consulting firms engaged in geological engineering.”

Spotlight on Natural Sciences Alumni: Jason Sundram

Name: Jason Sundram
Age: 33
Occupation:  Senior Data Scientist at PayPal
Education (UR and additional):  BA in Mathematics, University of Rochester, 2001
Current city/state of residence: Somerville, MA
Community activities: violinist in local chamber music groups and orchestras, photographer at Boston Photography Center, participant in Music Hack Day and Data Without Borders weekend-long events when they occur.

When and how did you choose your major?

I chose to major in math at the end of my sophomore year. I had taken a bunch of math and physics classes, and had originally declared a physics major. But I was inspired by my math professor Naomi Jochnowitz to want to prove (and therefore understand) everything. It changed the way I thought about the world, and made me decide math was the major for me. It was a good choice for me: math opens a lot of doors.

What activities were you involved in as a student and what did you gain from them?

I spent a lot of time playing violin in the University’s Chamber and Symphony Orchestras, as well as time in the music department playing chamber music. Access to great coaching and a fantastic music library at Eastman also helped further my musical development as someone not majoring in music. I currently still play a lot, and it is a fantastic way to meet interesting people from all walks of life.

What do you do now and why did you choose this career?

I analyze and visualize large data sets for PayPal. Data visualization requires a combination of analytical skills and an artistic sensibility that aren’t often found together, so it’s a cool niche. It’s also a lot of fun. Finding this career hasn’t been a straight path. Since I graduated, my formula for finding jobs has been “programming + domain specific knowledge = something fun”. The domains I have worked in include physics, photography, music, and now, visual arts.

What skills, tools, or knowledge from your major have been most useful to you since graduation?

The single year of computer science classes (CS 171 and 172) that I took have paved the way for my entire career. Lack of fear of math, more than any particular course I took in the math department, has also served me quite well. I’ve worked with experts in a lot of fields, from ecology to physics, and have been able to understand and implement their ideas due to that mathematical literacy and fluency.

How do you balance your work and personal life?

When you love what you do, finding that balance isn’t as hard; work doesn’t seem like as much of an imposition. But having activities that I also love outside of work forces me to make time for them. I have found myself showing up to work after having already been awake for five hours, so that I could drive to the coast to photograph sunrise over the water.

What advice do you have for current students?

You will be happiest in your career when you can do something you enjoy. And the job you might have ten years after graduating may not even exist or have a name now. Combining your passions with a solid skill set may take you much further than doing something that seems reliable that you don’t care about. Take a year of programming courses; they will change your life. And take enough math to not be afraid of it; math is everywhere!

Spotlight on Natural Sciences Alumni: Brian Turkett

Name: Brian Turkett
Age: 25
Education (UR and additional): B.S. in Physics and Astronomy and B.A. in Mathematics, University of Rochester, 2008; Take Five in Music Cognition, 2009; M.S. in Adolescent Education
Current city/state of residence: Baltimore, MD
Job Title: Science Educator
Employer: Maryland Science Center

Why did you choose to attend the University of Rochester?

I was interested in Rochester for its focus on astronomy research and education. My number one reason for choosing UR was that I knew I wanted a school that had an in depth program on astronomy, and Rochester does some great research in the field. Another reason is one of the best things Rochester offers is the ability to design your own major, minor, and clusters with your advisors. I was able to design both my own clusters in music and history, which was perfect because they were two subject areas outside of astronomy that I was really interested in.

When and how did you choose your major?

I always had a fascination and interest in astronomy and was really looking for a strong program that would provide me a lot of opportunities to learn about physics and astronomy. In high school, I knew that was what I wanted to be involved in, so I specifically chose Rochester for my major. As I was taking the required math courses for the physics and astronomy major, I discovered I would only need a couple more courses to receive a Bachelor’s in mathematics. The great thing about both of them was that I was able to pick the courses that interested me the most and design my own course of study with my advisors. I even had the opportunity to work in labs with professors on current astronomy research.

Also, my interest in education began at Rochester. During my sophomore year, I participated in Jumpstart, which was an early literacy program designed to partner you with young children to help them with their literacy skills. Needless to say, I loved the experience and began to debate heading into education. It wasn’t until my take five year that I finally committed to that decision and applied to the Warner School of Education. I had a busy, but very worthwhile, experience at Warner, and I am still having a blast mixing all the experience and education that Rochester has provided me into my career.

What activities were you involved in as a student and what did you gain from them?

For the majority of college I was a member of Residential Life. My sophomore year I was a D’Lion, my junior, senior, and take five years I was a resident advisor, and during my time at Warner I was a graduate head resident. I think the greatest thing about those experiences was that since I was in freshmen dormitories for five years I was able to connect and meet so many people from different class years, which really made my experience at Rochester special and enjoyable.

Although it is not an activity, another great experience I received was through the Take Five program. I was able to build my own program of study to something outside of my major and study it for a year after graduation. I chose music cognition, which consisted of a mix of classes between the music department and brain and cognitive science department. I was able to create my own independent study through Eastman. Every course I took that year was amazing, and it has provided me with a new interest and passion that I continue to think and learn more about.

What do you do now and why did you choose this career?

Currently, I am a science educator at the Maryland Science Center. My title is the SpaceLink Manager. SpaceLink is a current update center and exhibit related to astronomy and aerospace science. Beyond managing the exhibit, I also teach classroom programs related to physics, astronomy, and other sciences to students and families. The awesome thing about this job is that I am able to take the science I learned from my major and some skills and knowledge of astronomy research I gained in the Near-Infrared Astronomy Laboratory and incorporate them with my formal and informal science education practices I gained from the Warner School. I chose this career because I was interested in teaching science and focusing mainly on astronomy education. Also, It is very cool to be working at a science center because my passion for science began in the second grade during a field trip to the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

How are you still connected with the University?

There are a lot of alumni around the Baltimore area. We enjoy meeting up with each other and continually find new alumni to hang out with. The Rochester community was a perfect size, so someone will always know someone in a different class year. You can continually build friendships through the University connection.

Also, I have connected with the University through my teaching. When I student taught in Rochester, I brought my classroom to the physics and astronomy department for a field trip and showed them some of the labs and research being conducted. I also continue to help out the Warner School’s new cohorts and share information about education that can help them become even better teachers.

Sorcha Dundas Awarded Fulbright to Nepal

University of Rochester student Sorcha Dundas ’12 has been awarded a 2012-13 Fulbright Scholarship to Nepal, where she will serve as an English Teaching Assistant. Dundas, a native of Rutland, Vt., is the first Rochester student to be accepted into the Nepal program. In the past five years, 35 Rochester students and alumni have received a Fulbright Scholarship, which is among the most prestigious and competitive fellowship programs.

Rochester senior Edith Hanson, who will graduate with dual majors in Japanese and computer science and a minor in history, was named a Fulbright alternate to South Korea. Rising junior Adam Russak was chosen to participate in the 2012 Fulbright US-UK Summer Institute, where he will spend six weeks studying at Durham University in the United Kingdom. Russak, a native of Agoura Hills, Calif., is completing a bachelor of science degree in applied math and also doing a minor in classical civilization.

Dundas, who will graduate on May 20 with a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology from the College, will spend a month in Katmandu, undergoing extensive training in the Nepali language and honing her teaching skills. During her eight-month stay in Nepal, she hopes to volunteer in a local health clinic or assist in research and community projects, in addition to her teaching assistantship.

For Dundas, the Fulbright is an opportunity to build upon experiences she had working with and studying Nepali refugees in America during summer 2011. Dundas, who was awarded an Anthropology Undergraduate Research Grant, worked with newly settled Bhutanese refugees during an internship with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. Dundas lived with a Nepali family originally from Bhutan, serving as an in-home English tutor. During the summer, she also used her research grant to study newly formed agricultural projects that help refugees and immigrants acclimate to the United States. Both experiences will help inform her honor’s thesis, which explores the American experience of Nepali refugees.

For Dundas, traveling to Nepal as a Fulbright is not her first international education experience. She also studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, as a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholar and also received an IES Africa Scholarship. During her time in South Africa, she worked in impoverished Cape Flat communities, teaching English as a Second Language to nine through 12-year-olds.

At Rochester, Dundas was involved in the campus chapter of GlobeMed, a student organization that is committed to improving the conditions of global health and advocating for social justice. As a tutor with UReading, she spent nearly 10 hours each week helping preschool children develop their language, literacy, math, and social skills at Rochester City School District School 29. She also served as a resident assistant for four semesters.

The Fulbright program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, offers opportunities for career-launching study, teaching, and research abroad and are designed to promote education and cultural exchange between the United States and other nations. Postgraduate scholars pursuing study or research design their own programs and arrange institutional affiliations in the host countries. The grants cover expenses such as travel and health insurance, and also provide a monthly stipend. Established by Congress in 1946, Fulbright is the largest federally sponsored international educational exchange program.

Spotlight on Natural Sciences Alumni: Gennady Vonorov

Name: Gennady Vonorov
Age: 26
Occupation: Apprenticed Scientist i.e. Graduate Student
Education: B.S. in Physics and B.S. in Mathematics, University of Rochester, 2008; M.S. and M.A. in Physics, Yale University; PhD (Physics), Yale, forthcoming.
Current city/state of residence: New Haven, CT
Family: Currently engaged to another UR alum.

When and how did you choose your major?

I started out college intent on majoring in engineering. Coming out of high school, my favorite subjects were math and physics. Engineering seemed like a natural extension of these interests. However, freshman year, I found my math and physics courses a great deal more engaging. In a physics course, taught by Dr. Eberly, we were assigned the book In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat, by John Gribbin. This book, and Dr. Eberly’s class, left me with many more questions than answers. From then on, I have been hooked on physics and it’s natural language, mathematics.

What did you do immediately after graduation? How did you decide to take that path?

After graduation, I started a job with Epic Systems, which is an electronic medical records software company. I knew I wanted to try working at a “real” job before I committed to a PhD. I was unsure of what I wanted to do outside of science, and Epic kind of fell into my lap. My best friend, also a senior at UR at the time, was hired by Epic, and he recommended me for the job as well.


What do you do now and why did you choose this career?

Currently, I am a graduate student at Yale University studying theoretical particle physics. Before starting on this path, I worked for a year at a software company. The company went above and beyond to keep their employees happy. However, I did not find my work very captivating. I applied to PhD programs in physics with the knowledge that it really was the correct path for me. Graduate school is hard (you work twice as much for half as much pay), so I was glad to have the experience of working for a private company before embarking on this path.

What skills, tools, or knowledge from your major have been most useful to you since graduation?

As a graduate student in theoretical physics, I use concrete skills acquired in both my math and physics majors on a daily basis. If anything, a third major in computer science would have been immensely useful as well. The courses in both of my majors, beyond transferring specific knowledge and skills, trained me to hone my intuition and think rigorously about problems. This training would have been helpful in any field I could have gone into. I would wholeheartedly recommend either of my two majors to anyone wanting to improve their critical thinking skills.

How do you balance your work and personal life?

The simple answer is that I don’t really balance my work and personal life. I have honestly found this aspect of life a great deal more challenging than anything else post-college.

Where would you like to be in five years?

Currently, I am in my third year of graduate school and engaged to my best friend. So, extrapolating, I would like to go by Dr. Voronov and be happily married. Hopefully, I will also be in a post-doc position in a new fun and exciting place.

What advice do you have for current students?

Challenge yourself to the fullest extent possible, be it academically, socially or in any other innumerable possibilities. I found, due in large part to the faculty and my peers, that UR was a deeply supportive place. After college, life will be challenging, so learn how to be challenged while in a supportive environment.

Encoding Secrets in Mathematics: Junior hired as an intern at the NSA

Univ. Communications – Not many people are able to make it through the whole application process of becoming an intern at the Director’s Summer Program at the National Security Agency. It starts with hundreds of applicants who have superb math backgrounds — a tenth of the pool are offered a conditional acceptance, out of which a third will be hired. These candidates face hours of background checks and security clearances. In-person interviews to judge personality traits and on-the-spot math are taken, as well as polygraph and psychiatric tests. Just 24 students are offered a position.

Sean Al-Gattas ’13 is one of them. A junior majoring in mathematics, he was recently hired to spend the summer working at the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

The National Security Agency is responsible for providing intelligence services to the Department of Defense, the CIA, and various industry partners. In conflicts, it processes strategic and tactical information to war planners. It is the nation’s largest employer of mathematicians, who figure out ways to protect sensitive domestic information and intercept foreign communications.

Al-Gattas will be working on a daily basis on a project with other NSA mathematicians. It will be confidential and rigorous, and at the end of the summer he is expected to deliver a presentation to the director of the NSA. It not only requires advanced mathematical reasoning, but also the ability to work in a discrete environment.

Much of the work involves cryptography, an ancient science that intersects the disciplines of mathematics, engineering, and in modern times, computer science. “I think of cryptography as the mathematics of keeping secrets,” says Al-Gattas. More than an exclusive language, it’s the technique of keeping a secret in plain sight. Early forms of keeping secrets often involved ciphers, like the scytale, a device used by Spartans involving a message on a strip of parchment that can only be read when wound on a stick. Cryptography is often most important in wartime: World War II saw a massive rise in the numbers of codebreakers devoted to understanding the communications of the other side. In modern times, cryptography has reached into the life of ordinary Americans, providing security for computer passwords and ATM cards.

Although he has sat in on Professor Amanda Beeson’s class, MTH 233: Cryptography, Al-Gattas has never formally received credit for cryptography. As a freshman coming to Rochester from Syracuse N.Y., he intended to major in physics before settling on mathematics. One of his favorite topics is Graph Theory, and he spent the last semester at Penn State studying Ramsey Theory; both require heavy use of abstract reasoning and mathematical modeling. These skills will be useful when Al-Gattas starts working on developing cryptography and related mathematics.

Al-Gattas loves this kind of work, and his enthusiasm for both advanced mathematics and NSA experience is hard to miss. “I’m really excited to do work with the other students in the program. It’s going to be incredible to be working with really talented students and scholars who are among the best at what they do.” Al-Gattas is also active in the campus community. He has been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, works as a TA for various math classes, and plays tuba in Brass Choir. Paul Fili, one of the math professors at Rochester who wrote a recommendation for Al-Gattas for the NSA says that Sean “is both a friendly person and a talented young mathematician with a sharp mind. I’m very pleased to hear he received this opportunity and I’m sure he will do an excellent job.”

Does he have any advice for other undergraduates? “Do your research, and use Google to your advantage. Nobody told me about working at the NSA before, and I sort-of just stumbled on it. It’s a really weird thing that I was able to get this opportunity, but it just goes to show that plenty of things are possible if you try.”

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Article written by Dan Wang, a sophomore at Rochester, who studies philosophy and economics. Photo courtesy of Sean Al-Gattas.