One of the most exciting moments for Allison Henrich, PhD is when a student changes their mind about what math is. “Whether they change from seeing math as useless to seeing it as useful, or from viewing math as computational to viewing it as something requiring creativity, I love to see students address their misconceptions about the mathematical world.”
Sometimes what it takes to change a student’s mind is an inspired teacher and a well-taught class. Brandi Fleming arrived at SU intending to major in chemistry. But Dr. Jim Humphreys’ freshman precalculus class “rebooted” Brandi’s passion for math. “His ability to explain a range of mathematical concepts and show how the concepts are intertwined helped me understand on a deeper level,” she says.
Now in her senior year, Brandi has been working with Dr. Henrich on her research in knot theory, the study of knots from a mathematical perspective. Knot theory is used to model molecules in chemistry and has biological applications as well. Dr. Henrich’s work deals with a type of knot structure that may be particularly useful in the study of DNA.
Knot theory presents some of the hardest problems in mathematics today, yet both Brandi and her mentor describe it visually. “Think of a knot as a knotted circle sitting in space,” says Dr. Henrich. “There is a certain amount of mathematical intuition that everyone has about knots, so it’s something I can easily describe to a group of students. I love that knot theory is both deep and accessible. To prove one’s first result takes a couple of years of college math combined with logic and creativity.”
In addition to her work with Dr. Henrich, Brandi has also participated in nonlinear wave theory research with John Carter, PhD. “I study the different derivations of important equations that model water waves,” Brandi explains. “This has many practical applications, including tsunami detection.”
For Brandi, the chance to participate in cutting-edge research and personal attention from teachers who consistently go above and beyond expectations add up to a big difference. “At a larger university,” she says, “I do not think I would have had the opportunity to accumulate as much research experience as I have. Experiences like this set Seattle University’s CSE faculty apart from any other school.”