Math or Science? Problem Solved.

Romer Beato, Xianzhen Zhu, and Daavid Moseley
July 1, 2010
###### STORY HIGHLIGHTS
• BMCC student King Zhu won 2nd Place,CUNY Math Challenge
• Daavid Moseley won 1st place, technology, statewide C-STEP competition
• Romer Beato is participating in a Mathematical Association of America project â€śmodeling electric current through cell membrane"
• These students have overlapping skill sets in math and science, which lead to cross-disciplinary, cutting-edge research and employment

Now a math major at BMCC, Xianzhen Zhu—his friends call him “King”—moved to New York from China, just a year ago. He’s a member of the BMCC Math Team, and on his own, won Second Place in the 2010 CUNY Math Challenge, in which participants email their answers to the judges, then meet the panel in a face-to-face, final round.

Was it hard? “Some questions were hard,” says King, “but inspiration came to me and then I solved them.” The contest’s level of difficulty peaked, he thinks, in the third round, which focused on prime numbers, or numbers with only one factor—themselves.

Was it fun? Sure, he says, and so was collecting a cash prize of \$2,000, plus \$250 for answering a bonus question. “I already bought the ticket, about \$1,600 to go back to China this year,” says King. “The rest of the money, I plan to buy some robotics kits.”

Wait—robotics kits? Not math software, a new graphing calculator, or even a ticket to Las Vegas, to try out his probability skill set?

“My plan is to study electronics and mechanics and maybe financial engineering,” says King. He remains devoted to his math studies—but dreams of inventing an affordable notebook computer, and can’t resist the engineering department’s robotics workshops, where he learns about microprocessors, wiring and the wonders of autonomous devices.

“I have an interest in making robots, in electrical stuff and how computers work,” he says. “To design something, you have to know math,” he adds, and explains that invention can’t happen without calculations; that numerical data looms large because “in engineering, a lot of people care about efficiency.”

### Multiple choices

Now consider Daavid Moseley, who started at BMCC as a science major, then switched to math.

Moseley graduated this past June, just after his project on Gaussian integrals won 1st place for technology, in the community college division of the New York State C-STEP (Collegiate Science & Technology Entry Program) competition.

Born in the Bronx and living now in Harlem, Moseley was home-schooled from the age of 11. He credits much of his love of learning to his mother, who attended Bronx Community College, then graduated with a Bachelor’s in English from City College. “She’s the light in a dark tunnel when I became confused or convoluted by the issues of life,” he says.

He also appreciates the guidance he found in BMCC math professor, Nadajarah Kirupaharan, in sorting out his goals. “I began BMCC with the intent to pursue a biology degree when I transferred out,” Moseley says. “Over time, however, I began to feel a strong attachment to math.”

The pull in both directions was resolved once he understood the options available to him. “Both subjects can be intertwined with the modeling of chemicals of disease epidemics,” he says. “Dr. Kirupaharan is also a Bio-Mathematician, so he was able to provide some help and answer some questions related to the field.”

Another influence was BMCC science professor Richard Hendrix, whose research includes computerized reconstruction of human embryonic lenses, to aid in the treatment of eye disorders. Graphing and evaluating data are just one of the ways, Moseley realized, he could apply his math skills to his passion for research.

“I was always intrigued by the enigmatic presence of the brain,” he says, “and I’ve always wanted to be one of the people working on a huge project. One day, I hope to be on a team devoted to the mathematical modeling and/or mapping of the entire human brain.”

His next step is starting at Brooklyn College in Fall 2010, majoring in Mathematics, with Chemistry, or Biochemistry as his minor. He wants to work in neurobiology someday, doing research in both math and biochemistry.

### "You need math to be a scientist"

Another math aficionado, Romer Beato, didn’t scrawl math formulae on his bedroom walls, as Moseley did as child, or excel effortlessly in math all his life, like King. He grew up in Brooklyn, and attended a public high school of the arts, where his favorite medium for illustration was charcoal. Once he got to BMCC, though, the subject of math grew on him.

“I was lucky enough to have an adjunct professor with a lot of time on his hands,” says Beato, who enjoyed staying after class to talk about the day’s lesson. “I just became infatuated with math, after hearing him lecture a few times. He would always go on tangents about how math is related to this or that, and it just drew me in.”

This new love, which Beato himself admits to have been an “infatuation,” did not stand the test of time—and by his second year at BMCC, he had switched his major from math to science. Ever the gentleman, though, he credits his first love for many lessons learned.

“You need math to be a scientist,” he says, “because mathematics is a representation of nature that we can symbolize on paper, which was one of the ideas of Isaac Newton, who was using math and attaching it to physical phenomena. Aristotle and a few other philosophers studied nature, but they didn’t really attach mathematical symbols to it, and they could only achieve qualitative conclusions. Newton changed that.”

His time as a math major, it seems, was transformative. “I see mathematics everywhere,” Beato says. “After a while, you begin to see all types of occurrences, in functions and graphs and all kinds of crazy things. There’s actually a ratio called the Golden Ratio [1:66], which is present in many places. It’s aesthetically beautiful to humans, and you can see it everything—it’s in our bodies, it’s in architecture.”

An affection for math combined with an interest in human physiology and disease had something to do with his transition to science. “What really draws me to biology is the HIV virus,” Beato says. “The HIV virus is microscopic—but when it gets inside our bodies, it can take us down. It’s like a single man taking down the world.”

Recommended by BMCC math professor Abdramane Serme, new science major Beato is now participating in a project through the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), “modeling electric current through cell membranes.” Supervised by BMCC math professor Brett Sims, Beato and other students are looking at existing data to model their own equations.

Eventually, Beato sees himself in graduate school, majoring in biomedical engineering. “I want to work on the technology behind medical advances,” he says. “Maybe imaging, or surgical applications.”

### Problem solving: A common denominator

Whether majoring in math, science or engineering, there are habits of mind that build success in all three.

Bearing this out, students in the BMCC robotics workshops, according to engineering professor Mahmoud Ardebili, “are about one-third math, one-third computer science, and one-third engineering majors.”

“Engineers are problem solvers that try to be pragmatists and come up with a solution for a given problem, as opposed to proving a theorem,” he says. “And you know what a problem solver does, but how do you teach problem solving? It’s a skill with a broad definition, and I think that’s why we have so many classes in engineering coming at problem solving from so many perspectives; from labs to theory to computers, to teach students how to use the available tools.”

Math professor Jason Samuels, who coaches the BMCC math team and was on one himself in high school and college, is well acquainted with the array of abstract-to-pragmatic problem solving that occurs in math and the sciences.

“When it comes to the domain of math,” he says, “problem solving has a certain abstract component to it. It’s really about having the ground rules set for you, and you’ve got to figure out how to put the pieces together and draw conclusions.”

In that way, Samuels sees an overlap with the problem solving of science.

“I’ll take chemistry as a nice example,” he says. “There are rules for chemicals—this chemical plus this chemical has this sort of reaction—so that’s very basic; that’s not problem-solving; that’s just memorizing facts. However, once you get to the level of research, you’re in a domain where people do not know what sorts of reactions are going to take place. And then you have to draw on your entire body of knowledge to ask, ‘What do I think is going to happen?’”

Math, says Samuels, can seem more abstract in that the rules all look like formulas, “as opposed to biology or chemistry, where you might be drawing on experience from similar situations where you were working with actual chemicals, or perhaps in the case of biology or anthropology, where you were working with actual groups of individuals.”

From a student’s perspective, Moseley agrees. “As math undergrads, we learn a variety of methods to solve a multitude of problems ...The only way to do this successfully is to investigate the problem with an open mind, and think about the methods necessary. I’ve incorporated this intuitive thinking and open mind to other subjects including biology, chemistry, sociology, history, philosophy, and others.”

### Disciplines that play well together, pay well together

While academic majors tend to be more compartmentalized at the early stages of a person’s college career, options increase, down the road. Complimentary skill sets in math, science and engineering reflect their merging in new areas of research and in an expanding range of academic departments: biotechnology, biomathematics, bioengineering and biorobotics; not to mention, socioeconomics, cultural evolutionism, human geography, and many others.

When disciplines are combined, their sum is sometimes larger than their parts. Case in point: Dr. Samuels’ recent collaboration with BMCC science professor David Krauss, to create research on dinosaur feathers presented at the 69th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in England, last year.

“His general thesis was related to body size—which dinosaurs had feathers, and why,” says Samuels. “It had to do with heat capacity, body size, surface area and different sorts of things. He had a general idea, and had collected all these examples from the fossil records, but what he was having trouble doing was tying it together in a mathematical formula. So that’s when he came to me and I said, ‘I’d love to work with you on this.’  I had to bring myself up to speed on the paleontology aspects—like what sorts of measurements they were taking—but after that, I was able to come up with a model formula he could plug his data into, in order to test his hypothesis.”

In other words, math students who love science, engineering students who love math, and so on—are in very good company, not to mention, likely to stumble on specializations that lead to research or employment they might never have envisioned, early in their academic lives.

Meanwhile, they’re enjoying their journey to the rewards of a well paid, expanding range of bio-research, technology and engineering jobs. Beato plays tennis and reads “unhealthy amounts of science fiction.” When his shift as a math tutor at BMCC ends, Moseley takes a walk across Lower Manhattan to relax playing the Mott Street arcades. King tutors math, and works as a counter person at a nearby Subway restaurant, where the lines are problems solved on a daily basis, and math and science persist in cash register calculations and heat’s effect on cheese.

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