Stern College for Women Math Majors Lead the Way with Innovative Research
The Stern College Department of Mathematical Sciences is leading the way in Yeshiva University’s efforts to further its commitment to STEM programs and prepare its graduates for the marketplace of tomorrow. Dr. Marian Gidea, professor of mathematics at Stern and in YU’s graduate programs in mathematical sciences, spoke to YUNews about current mathematics offerings at YU and in particular, some Stern College math scholars doing innovative research under the supervision of accomplished mentors.
The mathematics program at YU is in the midst of extraordinary expansion and diversification, according to Gidea. The number of YU math majors at all levels, including master’s and PhD candidates, is on the rise and Gidea says this is due to increased high-quality course offerings. For example, he listed a spring 2018 class, Topics in Complex Systems: Financial Time Series, taught by Dr. Yuri Katz, who is a director at S&P Global Market Intelligence. “We are now offering a pre-actuarial/financial mathematics track at the undergraduate level,” he said, “”as well as a financial mathematics track at the graduate level. We are planning to create a new major in the mathematical physics of biomedicine, jointly with the department of physics.”
“Another component of our success is our BA/MA program,” Gidea continued. “It allows advanced undergraduate students to take graduate courses that can count towards both the BA and MA. Having undergraduates and graduate students studying side by side has created an electric atmosphere and contagious enthusiasm towards mathematics.
“In addition, many of our students are engaged in cutting-edge research,” he noted. “For example, Yael Eisenberg has been working on a project concerned with the mathematical analyses of brain waves, recorded via magnetoencephalography. [A non-invasive device which investigates brain activity by recording the magnetic fields produced by the electric currents in the brain.] This is a collaborative project with Dr. Mina Teicher from the department of mathematics and Gonda Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University.”
Eisenberg, from Passaic, New Jersey, is a math major, Kressel Scholar and one of the students in that BA/MA program. “The research project we started over the summer is about the perception of counting in the brain,” she explained. “We are analyzing the response of the brain when people count one to five circles, beeps or taps, and comparing the results. It is clear that four equals four, whether in reference to seeing four circles, hearing four beeps or feeling four taps. However, since we are responding to different senses, different parts of the brain will be stimulated initially. Our goal is to find the place in the brain which is common to all three senses ─ where the brain turns the sense into a number ─ which is the same number regardless how it was sensed.
“The magnetoencephalography machine, or MEG, is very expensive,” she continued, “and therefore quite rare; there are fewer than 150 MEGs worldwide and the Bar-Ilan MEG is the only one in Israel. The MEG offers a unique perspective and can also complement similar research conducted on other machines such as the MRI.”
Eisenberg’s project is part of the the BIU-YU Summer Science Research Internship program, which places select undergraduates from Yeshiva College and Stern College in one of the state-of-the-art research laboratories of Bar-Ilan’s life science, brain research, exact science, or engineering faculties. “I never expected that being a math major could take me into neuroscience research,” Eisenberg said. “I approached Professor Gidea and told him that I was applying for the BIU-YU program and asked him if he knew any mathematicians in Bar-Ilan with whom I could do research. At his recommendation I requested to work with Professor Teicher, and I have found the experience extremely rewarding. It is fascinating to delve into neuroscience (which is a new science for me), a field whose research has such an important impact on every aspect of our lives. Our group’s mathematical background enables us to analyze the complicated brain data as effectively as possible. I derive great satisfaction from applying math to science and using my skills as a math student to better explain the mysteries of the world.”
Gidea also pointed to Marjorie Liebling, a junior from Spring Valley, New York, majoring in math at Stern, another undergrad who is doing advanced research. Liebling is working on Bayesian networks analysis [a statistical model for predicting outcomes] of gene expression data with Dr. Jessica Mar from the departments of systems and computational biology and epidemiology and population health at YU-affiliated Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Liebling explained her project: “I collaborated with Shuonan Chen, a PhD candidate, to work on a completely new project developing interactive software to interrogate and visualize Bayesian networks,” she said. “Currently, our application is set to document the genetic expression of murine mesoderm cells which form at early stages of embryonic development and have the potential to evolve into blood cells. The goal of the Bayesian network is to reveal relationships that exists between individual genes.
“Dr. Mar taught me the importance of reproducibility and appropriate test selection when analyzing big data,” Liebling said. “This invaluable experience served not only to intensify my enchantment with mathematics and computer science, but also introduced me to practical applicability of these disciplines in generating an understanding of the world around us.
“This project is extremely exciting,” Liebling added. “Because it is the perfect blend of the disciplines about which I am very passionate: biology, computer science, and, of course, mathematics! What makes mathematics particularly appealing to me, is its inherent puzzle-solving and problem-oriented nature that promotes critical and analytical thinking.”
“These examples of students’ research projects speak not only about the fantastic energies of our programs,” said Gidea, “but also about the expanding role of mathematics in the sciences and technology.” He noted more student researchers including Miriam Herman who has been working on the application of neural networks with Dr. Kavitha Srinivas of Rivet Labs, and Wai-Ting Lam, a doctoral student, who is involved in a space science research project, with Dr. Rodney Anderson from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“The math department at Stern is truly exceptional,” said Liebling. “Each professor comes to class with contagious excitement and enthusiasm for the subject matter and strongly encourages participation. The department stresses a deeper understanding of the material so that students come away not only being able to perform computation, but also understanding the theory behind it and its application to real-life issues. This fosters development of critical thinking which makes learning exciting, challenging and even more enjoyable. Outside of the classroom, the professors have an open-door policy where students are always welcome to seek guidance regarding current courses, future courses and academic endeavors.”
“I would be remiss in omitting the important role that Stern’s math faculty has played in my academic career,” added Eisenberg, who is a senior on track to graduate with an MA in January 2019. “Their willingness to tailor the program to the needs of each student, along with their advocacy on behalf of the students ─ whether this means helping them to network, exposing them to available opportunities to enrich their educational experiences, and/or enabling them take advantage of these opportunities ─ exceeds any expectation I might have had of my instructors. I will always be grateful to my professors for their contribution to my intellectual and educational growth.”