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Why this Rochester math professor champions year-round undergraduate research

January 20, 2022
Professor and student standing in front of smart board with equations.Rochester math professor Alex Iosevich (left), pictured with PhD student Charlotte Aten ’17, ’19 (MS), says he "no longer believe[s] undergraduate research experience is optional. I think it needs to be a fundamental part of the curriculum.” Aten got started in research as an undergraduate at Rochester, through a program Iosevich co-directs and is now one of the program's instructors. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

Alex Iosevich has seen first-hand how research experiences bolster his students’ confidence and independent thinking.

Tripods REU or STEM for All at Rochester

Tripods REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) and the STEM for All summer programs are slated to take place in person July 18–August 12, 2022. The deadline to apply is Monday, February 21.

  • Learn more about the programs, eligibility requirements, and how to apply.

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One of Charlotte Aten’s first research experiences at the University of Rochester helped her in ways she never imagined at the time.

Aten, who grew up in Groveland, New York, transferred to the University in 2014 after earning an associate degree in mathematics from Monroe Community College.

The following summer she joined 15 other students in a research experience for undergraduates (REU) program led by Department of Mathematics faculty members Alex Iosevich, Jonathan Pakianathan, and Giorgis Petridis.

“It resulted in my first paper,” says Aten, who completed her undergraduate degree in 2017 and is now a PhD student in Pakianathan’s research group. “We had groups doing experimental computations and other groups that were more just purely mathematical, and we would take turns sharing our results. It was a really great process.”

Her participation in the REU established the foundation for many of her subsequent research and teaching experiences. In fact, the student has become the teacher: for the past two summers, Aten has served as an instructor for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Tripods REU and STEM for ALL programs that Iosevich directs for the Georgen Institute for Data Science.

With Iosevich’s encouragement and support, Aten has expanded her mathematical research interests to applications that include data science and machine learning. Moreover, she has parlayed those interests into new projects for Rochester undergraduates.

“Alex creates a very positive and fun environment,” Aten says. “First of all, he definitely meets students where they are. He’s also really strong at seeing how he can help them to do their best in their particular situation, which I think is why he is so approachable and has such a large number of students.”

‘Research is not something you can turn on and off’

Iosevich, a fellow of the American Mathematical Society, has published more than 130 papers. He has received more than $2 million in grants to fund his research interests, which include combinatorics, number theory, classical analysis, and, most recently, neural nets—a computational framework that imitates the workings of the human brain. He currently advises eight of the 27 PhD students in the department.

But Iosevich’s passion is creating research opportunities for undergraduates. Most recently, these have included the 2021 summer Tripods REU program, an associated summer STEM for All program, and a fall undergraduate research program in data science (including for those students who wished to continue their summer research projects).

“I no longer believe undergraduate research experience is optional. I think it needs to be a fundamental part of the curriculum,” Iosevich says. “And it cannot be relegated to the summer. Research is not something that you can turn on and off. Students need to keep doing it during the fall and spring semesters, even if they cannot do it full time.”

Why is participating in research so important for undergraduates? Too often, Iosevich says, his industry contacts tell him that even straight-A college graduates enter the workplace ill-prepared to think independently or to pivot quickly and learn new skills to complete an assignment.

“The boss gives them an assignment to create such and such, using such and such package,” Iosevich says. “They tell the boss, ‘I didn’t learn this technique in my data science class, and I’ve never seen this package.’ And the boss says, ‘That’s not my problem.’”

Undergraduate research experiences, though, can give students the confidence and independent thinking skills to handle those kinds of scenarios, Iosevich says. By extension, equipping students with such skills benefits the reputation of universities that not only emphasize undergraduate research but also invest in making such opportunities available for all students. In the humanities and social sciences as well as STEM, he says.

Notably, Iosevich doesn’t pressure his undergraduates to produce research papers—despite the emphasis many program administrators might place on that outcome. “I introduce students to research techniques: how to look up literature, how to investigate things, how to determine if the problem is open or not, how to take something that is known, say in data science, and make small tweaks—and if that leads to a research paper, that’s great,” he says. “But to force publications can be very detrimental.”

Iosevich has been practicing what he preaches for more than 25 years, dating back to mentoring high school students and undergraduates as a new assistant professor at Wright State University, and then at Georgetown, the University of Missouri, and Columbia, before coming to Rochester in 2010.

Throughout his career, “One of my motivations has been to get more women and underrepresented minorities interested in math,” he says.

This year, a University Bridging Fellowship relieved Iosevich of his classroom teaching obligations so he could direct the research programs. In other years, however, Iosevich has volunteered his own time as necessary.

“I love doing this,” he says while recognizing the colleagues and students who have helped him organize and facilitate undergraduate research programs. In addition to Pakianathan and Petridis, they include Stephen Kleene ’05, assistant professor; Sevak Mkrtchyan, associate professor; current and former visiting assistant professors Emmett Wyman ’13, Ivan Chio, and Ayla Gafni, and former undergraduate student Yujia Zhai ’13.

‘This kind of experience on your resume can only help

“Alex is really good at making you do things on your own. He doesn’t spoon feed his students,” says Mandar Juvekar ’22, a dual major in math and computer science from Pune, India.

Juvekar joined one of Iosevich’s independent study groups the summer after his first year. Iosevich told the students to start reading a book about ongoing research in combinatorics, an area of mathematics primarily concerned with counting and that tackles a breadth of problems involving algebra, probability theory, topology, and geometry. The students would then apply techniques described in the book to various problems.

“The preface said the book is intended for students who have at least a first year of graduate studies in mathematics,” Juvekar recalls. “That was scary because I was a first-year undergraduate.”

However, Juvekar quickly realized that he could look elsewhere—on Google or in other textbooks—to learn more about the concepts he needed to use. “Learning how to do that is very useful, and Alex stresses that a lot,” says Juvekar, who subsequently participated as both a student and workshop leader for the Tripods REU.

Michele Martino ’22, a mathematics major from Rome, Italy, participated in the Tripods REU the last two summers. He says that Iosevich is “very open to discussing with undergraduates any sort of mathematics they might be interested in. He’s famous in the department because he tries to involve as many students as he can in his research.”

So, it is not surprising that Iosevich received an Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award from the Students’ Association in 2015. He also received outstanding teacher awards or was a finalist at the three other universities where he worked.

Martino, who is doing independent study with Iosevich this fall on a project involving harmonic analysis, is grateful for the research experience he’s gained. “When undergraduates apply to graduate school, having this kind of experience on your resume can only help,” he says. “And you get a chance to work with other students on interesting projects, and with amazing professors who are great mathematicians.”

Martino and Juvekar each plan to pursue doctorates after they graduate, with Martino concentrating on probability theory and its applications in data science and Juvenkar studying computer science. Both say their undergraduate research experiences with Iosevich and other mentors at the University helped them identify their areas of interest for advanced studies.

Meanwhile, Aten, who completes her PhD this year, is looking for a postdoctoral position, with an eye to working in academia. “But I also want to get some experience in real-world applications of math to business, so I’ll be looking for internships,” she says. Not with the goal of transitioning to industry, Aten says, but to have “similar connections to the ones that Alex has, to be able to send students to different companies or connect them to internships.”


Read more

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