The Power of Inquiring Minds
For a group of UNC Asheville students, the National Conference on Undergraduate Research represents a challenge accepted and an opportunity seized.
By Eric Seeger
Their subjects span almost every discipline taught on campus, but their goals are all the same: to push their education beyond the classroom. Every year, dozens of undergrads pinpoint areas of interest and curiosity within their majors and, with the guidance of a mentor professor, create rigorous long-term study projects for themselves. By the time they're finished, these students have done work that would normally be undertaken at the graduate level.
In this roundup, you'll get a glimpse of some of the UNC Asheville students who were selected to present their projects at the 25th annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Utah.
Austin Mack & Tim Sawicki
"Creative" and "historical" are words that don't immediately come to mind when most people think about solving equations, but Math majors Austin Mack '12 and Tim Sawicki '12 used both those adjectives when describing their undergraduate research project. The two students set off to improve upon a 300-year-old method for solving a 2,000-year-old algebra problem.
Pell's Equation, x2 – dy2 = 1, looks simple on the surface given that it's solved with whole numbers. When famed mathematician Leonhard Euler created a system for solving it, there was only one problem: the number of steps it took to solve for x and y could vary from only a handful up to thousands of iterations.
"You could work on the same equation for two hours and not reach an answer. So you'd ask yourself, 'Did I miss a minus sign somewhere along the line?'" said Mack. "We wanted to figure out if there's a way to estimate how many iterations is this process going to take."
The two students met for many hours each week last summer to refine their method. Sawicki created computer code to test their theories, while Mack spent much of his time at the chalkboard to prove their work. Then they'd split off and work in the evenings on their own. Using a process called dynamical systems, the team developed a way to predict a stop time, and they also discovered numerical patterns to make solving Pell's Equation more reliable.
"Since doing this research, I've studied the history of math, and I've seen methods people used to approach these solutions up to 1,000 years ago," says Mack. Today, the pair of UNC Asheville math students have added their own entry into the annals of Pell's Equation history.
Mary Kate Tucker
When she chose to be a Chemistry major, Mary Kate Tucker '12 didn't expect to find herself at the heart of a worldwide environmental issue like the threatened ozone layer. But she spent much of the past year working in the lab with her professors, Bert Holmes and George Heard, experimenting with hydrochlorofluorocarbons, or HCFCs, for her undergraduate research project.
HCFCs, which replaced CFCs that were phased out during the 1990s due to their negative impact on the ozone layer, serve as a common refrigerant. "HCFCs are found in so many products that we use every day: air-conditioners in your car and house, refrigerators, and other products," says Tucker. "It's critical for us to understand their environmental impact."
Tucker tested some of the ways that HCFC molecules change when released into the atmosphere, where they are affected by temperature, interaction with other molecules and sunlight, among other influences. She would start with computer models of variations of the HCFC molecule, where the bonds had shifted or other atoms had joined or detached. Then she would experiment in the lab to try to mimic these changes.
By the time she graduated in May, her research had not only been presented at numerous undergraduate research conferences, it made a contribution to the understanding of the lasting impact of HCFCs to our planet.
Mesha Maren & Matt Owens
A couple of non-traditional English majors, Matt Owens '12 and Mesha Maren '12 wanted to create a new writers' workshop on campus. So they developed an undergraduate research project that allowed them to travel to Portland, Ore., for six weeks to attend the Dangerous Writing workshop hosted by author Tom Spanbauer.
They studied the format closely, made a few changes, and returned to Asheville to foster their own weekly writers' group named Redaction. Unlike many workshops that require writers to distribute their samples weeks in advance (and group members to read them ahead of the critique), Redaction uses GoogleDocs to share the articles during each meeting. Writers must be willing to read their work to the group, whose members simultaneously provide feedback via the online document.
Owens and Maren graduated in May, but Redaction will continue to meet at Ramsey Library under the guidance of other students.
After spending weeks in Ramsey Library researching the evolution of Chicago's public housing for her project, former Student Government Association President Courtney Galatioto '11 eventually decided it was time to make her study area more like home. "I was a little surprised that no one had a problem with me bringing a beanbag chair into the stacks," she said, "but I guess the staff had seen me so much that semester that they just let it slide."
In her research, Galatioto explored how public housing decisions from the 1930s through the 1950s shaped Chicago's landscape—physically, socially and economically. She found a severe dichotomy between the intent of these housing policies and how they were implemented, which often resulted in deepening social exclusion of the people the policies were intended to help.
"With contemporary history like this, you can observe what people wanted to do and how they actually did it," she said. "And then look 20 years later, and you see how they were still trying to fix what they did. I studied Chicago, but the same thing occurred in almost every major city across the country. And we're still seeing the aftereffects today."
Though her research project is over, she plans to attend graduate school to study public policy and expects many extended library stays ahead of her.
Inspired by an idea from a friend—a DJ who wanted a way to control his MIDI player with his mind—Avi Goldberg explored ways to use a single-sensor electroencephalography (EEG) device to connect his brain to a computer.
"This could be used for handicapped accessibility, gaming or anything where you want to control a computer with your mind," Goldberg said.
Goldberg, a Computer Science major, developed a solution by modifying open-source software in order to connect the cheapest EEG device on the market (only $100) to his computer's controls. His goal was to prove that using mental power as a computer input doesn't have to cost thousands of dollars and require massive research teams.
Wearing a headset that reads electrical activity in the brain, Goldberg can move a volume control on his computer by just thinking. Concentration makes the digital slider go up. The functionality of this software can be expanded by adding more EEG sensors to create more controls. But Goldberg's most important finding is that affordable mind-computer connections are in our future.
With a few clicks of a mouse, Ricky Shriner '11 can make rivers overflow their banks and turn an entire town into a disaster scene from the nightly news—well, virtually at least.
Shriner, a recent Computer Science graduate, participated in an undergraduate research project for the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC) and a private Asheville company called The Elumenati.
The project aimed to simulate flood conditions in Asheville's River District. So Shriner combined the county's Geographic Information System (GIS) survey data and GoogleEarth imagery with UNITY—the software engine used to create the digital worlds in online video games like BattleStar Galactica and Lego Star Wars.
"Imagine anything you can already do with GoogleEarth," he said. "And now this allows you to make it interactive. From floods in Asheville to radiation clouds in Japan, with the right data, anything can be modeled."
Shriner's simulator was created to give city planners a realistic look at how homes and businesses along the French Broad River would be affected in the event of 100-year and 500-year floods. Being able to see the destruction caused by such floods, the city can plan how to use this land in ways that will minimize damage in the event of a great flood. After all, environmental disasters don't come with a reset button.