Math student takes her research to Capitol Hill

By Kim Lamb Gregory
Dana Cochran

CI Mathematics graduate student Dana Cochran rarely works with numbers. “You tell someone you’re a math major and they immediately want you to calculate the tip in your head,” said Cochran, 24. “The more advanced you are in math, the more you realize there’s not a single number on our whiteboards.”

That’s because advanced level math students like Cochran are working with abstract concepts, which they can use to help solve real world problems. Cochran used her mathematical skills to help streamline a diagnostic procedure in the world of medicine. The research she conducted impressed the Council on Undergraduate Research enough to earn her a trip to Washington D.C. in April to participate in the Council’s “Posters on the Hill” event.

Cochran was one of 60 participants chosen from more than 500 applicants from colleges and universities around the nation. “I was really excited,” said Cochran’s mentor, Associate Professor of Mathematics Kathryn Leonard, Ph.D. “I don’t ask all of my students to apply to ‘Posters on the Hill’ but she’s a wonderful student with a great attitude and great work ethic.”

Held April 22 and 23, “Posters on the Hill” was an opportunity for the chosen student researchers to set up posters detailing their research in a gallery setting. Members of U.S. Congress, staffers, journalists and other invited guests then had a chance to examine the posters and hear about each student’s research. “It’s exciting and also very nerve-wracking because I know I’ll have to talk in front of people,” Cochran said before the event. “I’m going to be very nervous. You never know who’s going to walk up to the poster. A mathematician? A journalist? A senator?”

Cochran presents research project in Washington D.C.Cochran’s research involved developing a database for physicians examining patient brain scans for the possibility of schizophrenia. Her goal was to build a database that would allow doctors to feed in the scans and find out whether the mathematical coordinates on the shape of the brain suggested the possibility of schizophrenia.

“Studies have shown that the shape of a part of the brain called the ‘corpus callosum’ will vary according to whether you have the disease,” Cochran said.

Leonard began the research project and invited Cochran to be a part of it in the fall of 2013, after watching Cochran sail through linear algebra classes during her sophomore year. “That’s when students transition from computation to abstract thought,” Leonard said. “It’s something most students struggle with, so I asked her to join my research group the following year.” Leonard mentored Cochran as Cochran created the poster for the event in Washington.

The trip, Cochran said, was an inspiration. A highlight for her was looking at posters from other high-achieving students from across the U.S., visiting the National Museum of American History and speaking to scientists and researchers at the Office of Science and Technology. “They were saying ‘Don’t be afraid to take risks. Do things that challenge you,’” Cochran said.

Cochran returned from Washington energized and enthusiastic about continuing her graduate school studies with plans to someday teach math at a college level.  

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© Spring 2015 / Volume 19 / Number 1 / Bi-annual