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FUSRP 2018: A Day in the Life

Image of Lauren Liao

An up-close look at the first few weeks of the Fields Undergraduate Summer Research Program, By Lauren Liao

If I could describe my first few weeks at the Fields Institute this summer for the Fields Undergraduate Summer Program (FUSRP) in a single phrase, it would have to be “eye-opening.”

As I aspire to complete a graduate program in biostatistics, I wanted to gain more experience in mathematical research, and consequently I applied to FUSRP after hearing about it through word of mouth. FUSRP, now in its eighth year, provides a high-quality and enriching mathematics experience for undergraduate students, fostering enthusiasm for mathematics research. Drawing students from around the world, our FUSRP cohort this year is the largest to date, with 43 students working on 13 different projects encompassing various pure and applied topics in mathematics, from artificial intelligence to model theory. Beating out almost 200 applicants for a spot in the program, I was eager to get started and immerse myself in rigorous mathematical research in Toronto.

I first set foot in the Fields Institute on the third of July, where FUSRP supervisors and students gathered for the program welcome. Following speeches from Fields and Fields-CQAM staff, supervisors provided an overview of the different research projects, giving students a taste of the projects the teams will be conducting over the following two months. I was intrigued by the wide variety of pure and applied projects. During the welcome, I met my own project supervisor, Dr. Hongmei Zhu of York University, and the members of my project team for the first time. We discussed the blueprint with Dr. Zhu, and I was excited to begin my own summer research experience.

Drawing on the strengths of our different mathematical backgrounds, my project group is studying the use of biomedical data in transformed spaces, examining ECG data to detect abnormal heartbeats. During the first few weeks, our group read into the scientific literature to develop a better understanding of our project, running preliminary simulations to complement the readings and gaining hands-on experience with the techniques and skills required to execute our research. After learning more about our project team, Hongmei assigned each member of our team an aspect of the project that was best aligned with our own research interests and goals. As an aspiring biostatistician with a background in probability, statistics, and cognitive science, my own research has two avenues of inquiry. To better communicate the results, my role is to focus on performance evaluation and data visualization. Our team dynamic is centered around open communication, where we can conduct exploration and propose ideas in discussion. During our biweekly presentations, we learn about each person’s contributions to the background of the project. Since our team setup is structured where each member plays an integral role, this helps me understand the fundamental building blocks for rigorous research.

To help us further hone our research and career skills, we were also given the opportunity to participate in workshops through the Fields Institute. Our intercultural communications workshop helped us identify our own personal communication style and the styles of others, a critical element to succeeding in increasingly interdisciplinary and interconnected global research networks. I was intrigued over the course of the workshop to learn that most mathematics students are categorized into a direct, less emotional style. Even though FUSRP students came from all over the world, we share that characteristic in common, a quality I attribute to the methodological and analytical skills we have developed over the course of our study. An elevator pitch session hosted by U of T’s Department of Mathematics, helped us develop our soft skills, with resource hiring managers from Scotiabank guiding us through constructing an effective pitch. One of our own FUSRP students, Quinten Tupker, won the pitch competition, and I was impressed by how fast he incorporated the information he was taught. Overall, I found such external workshops useful, as they helped me develop soft skills that would help me advance in the workforce.

Outside of the Fields Institute, I was ecstatic to explore the city and take in the vibrant culture, making new memories and fostering friendships with other members of the FUSRP cohort. On the weekends we took in Kensington Market, the Eaton Centre, St. Lawrence Market, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the art festival at Nathan Phillips Square, soaking up Toronto’s vibrant arts and culture scene. A personal friend and U of T student, Nic Bryenton, gave us tours of the city, sharing interesting facts and taking the FUSRP students to hidden gems and scenic local spots. A trip to Night It Up!, an Asian nightmarket in Markham, gave us the change to enjoy delicious streetfood and experience the nightmarket culture with games and dancing.

Even though it has only been a couple of weeks at Fields, I have already found myself adapted to the life both at the Institute and in Toronto. The diversity of students and their academic backgrounds in this year’s FUSRP cohort has helped me to better understand the universality of mathematics. Working in small groups has allowed me to approach problems from a new perspective. Research in mathematics has proven itself to be difficult yet rewarding, and I look forward to learning more and implementing theory into application. I can’t wait to see what the rest of this experience has in store.