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Researcher of the Month
Applied Mathematics & Statistics major, Honors College, Class of 2010
Howard Hughes Medical Institute (06), BNL-SULI (08) and URECA (09) Programs
Research Mentors: Dr. Moira Chas, Mathematics; Dr. Anne Moyer, Psychology; Dr. Robert McGraw, BNL, Environmental Sciences
The question isn’t: “What can you do with your major?” for URECA’s Researcher of the Month; but rather, “what CAN’T you do?!”
Margaret Brown, an Honors College AMS major, class of 2010, has been engaged in research under the direction of Prof. Anne Moyer in the Department of Psychology since 2005, using data from the National Cancer Institute’s Health Information National Trends Survey. Her research was early on funded by a pre-freshman Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research fellowship (2006) and provided her with experience using SUDAAN statistical programming. Later on, Margaret’s work with Prof. Moyer was supported with URECA summer program funding (2009). Margaret is a co-author on a publication with Prof. Moyer in the Journal of Health Psychology, Vol. 13(7), 862-865; and has a first-author publication with her mentor entitled “Predictors of awareness of clinical trials and feelings about the use of medical information for research in a nationally representative US sample” which has just been accepted for publication in Ethnicity & Health. Margaret has also worked with Aerodyne Aerosol Mass Spectrometer data on applying statistics to climate modeling using aerosol composition data, working with Dr. Robert McGraw at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Environmental Sciences, Atmospheric Sciences Division, using Principal Components Analysis (PCA) and IGOR Pro graphic and data analysis software. That project was funded in 2008 by the Department of Energy (DOE) through a Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI). She is continuing to work as a research assistant with Dr. McGraw doing follow-up statistical analysis for a journal article (in preparation).
More recently, Margaret has been exploring theoretical mathematics topics for her senior honors thesis project, mentored by Prof. Moira Chas of the Mathematics Department. Her project involves computer-based analysis of surface topology, uncovering underlying patterns in the number of self-intersections of curves on surfaces, as the length of these curves tends to infinity—and will be presented at the upcoming Honors College symposium in May 2010.
Such a range of research experiences and applications, and an ability to work with
massive amounts of data, might be daunting to some. But for Margaret, that’s part
of the appeal of being an applied mathematics and statistics major: “I realized that there were so many different things that math and statistics can be
applied to. Working in the psychology department was really great. I also loved working
at BNL in the Atmospheric Sciences department … and my current thesis project too.
What I like about statistics is it can be applied to so many areas. Every discipline
uses math, uses statistics in some way or another. That’s what I like about it!”
Stony Brook is well known for opening its doors to high school research trainees and for its premier faculty mentors. And Margaret Brown considers herself very thankful that Prof. Moyer gave her that initial opportunity to do research when she was only a junior at Longwood High School in Middle Island. Up to that point, she had participated in numerous school and even Suffolk county science fairs (even winning first prize at a Brookhaven National Lab science poster contest).
Margaret Brown was born and raised in Long Island, and is the daughter of two Stony Brook PhDs (class of 1990, 1991). Margaret’s hobbies include tennis, and flute. Last summer, she and several other students of Prof. Moira Chas assisted with the Math Midway Interactive Exhibition of the World Science Festival Street Fair (June 2009) in Washington Square Park, NYC where Margaret demonstrated thetricycle with square wheels. Margaret currently is applying to Ph.D. programs in applied mathematics; and is also studying for the second in a series of actuarial exams. Margaret will be presenting her ongoing work with Prof. Moyer at the URECACelebration/Psi Chi-Psychology conference & poster event on April 28, 2010.
Below are some excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: How did you become involved in research?
Margaret: During my junior year in high school, I was looking at the Stony Brook website. I saw that that a lot of undergraduates do research and that there were opportunities for high school students too. I emailed Dr. Moyer because I thought she might be interesting to talk to. I was very interested in her work on cancer data. Two of my aunts had cancer. Dr. Moyer gave me an opportunity to work as a research assistant in her lab that summer before senior year of high school. Then the following summer I worked with her again through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and again last summer through URECA.
What was it like when you first started as a high school student?
In the beginning, I felt a little self-conscious. Prof. Moyer mainly had graduate students working in her lab. Even though I was only in high school, she made me feel very welcome. She was really helpful, extremely kind about everything. When I had questions, she would always devote time to answer them and sit with me and help me work and learn about the programs that we were using. She showed me how to use statistical software, how to access journal articles that we needed for research. She always made time to teach me…personally. Thanks to her I was well prepared by the time I was a junior in Stony Brook and able to design my own research projects using the statistical programs that I had learned.
Tell me about the project you did through URECA last summer.
The work I did last summer used data from the National Cancer Institute’s Health Information National Trends Survey, a large collection of data that is assembled every two years. We were interested in how medical researchers can increase participation in clinical trials. We know that medical research and clinical trials should be representative. When new drugs or medical procedures are being tested, the subjects should represent all races because there are genetic predispositions that are influenced by race that can determine the outcome of medical treatment. But the demographics of clinical trials and medical research are disproportionately Caucasian, middle-high income and well educated individuals. . . We wanted to explore why minority groups and lower income and lower educated individuals aren’t involved as subjects of clinical trials. We used the HINTS data on these topics cross referenced with demographics. . . Finding out which groups are less aware of clinical trials, or are less favorable about research, is of interest because a lot of medical research is government- supported and is required to have a fair representation of race. Our research may give medical researchers ideas about how to increase the number of underrepresented participants.
Has this work been published?
We had a publication in the Journal of Health Psychology. And right now, a second paper is being published with Ethnicity in Health. I just heard yesterday - I'm really excited. I’m first author on the paper, and am really thankful to Dr. Moyer for giving that opportunity to me.
Was the revision process extensive?
The article has been revised so many times…I don’t know if any original sentences are still in there!
Have you always liked working with statistics?
I just liked math in high school. I was good at it. But I never really thought I would be using statistics to do so many things when I was thinking about a major in AMS in high school. It was later on that I realized that there were so many different things that math and statistics can be applied to. Working in the psychology department was really great. I also loved working at BNL in the Atmospheric Sciences department … And my current thesis project too! What I like about statistics is it can be applied to so many areas. Every discipline uses math, uses statistics in some way or another. That’s what I like about it! . . .
You've been able to venture into many different areas . . .
The statistics aren’t the real focus of the work, they’re a tool to explore topics I am interested in. In the two projects I did with Dr. Moyer with the National Cancer Institute data, I read many journal articles about recruiting patients for clinical trials in our country. The articles increased my awareness of social and economic issues and events like the infamous Tuskegee study. The research project that I did at BNL taught me about particulate pollution and how aerosol influences cloud composition, temperature and climate change. When I first began college I didn’t think I would be applying my passion for statistics to as many current issues as I have been able to do.
Tell me a little about your senior honors thesis, which I believe takes you in yet
I’m working with Prof. Moira Chas in Mathematics. It’s a theoretical math topic, analyzing the properties of surfaces. We’re working on the number of self-intersections of curves on surfaces, as the length of these curves tends to infinity. Discovering these possible patterns requires analysis of large amounts of data, in the form of matrices, of curves of different lengths. It is different than some of the other work I’ve done in some ways. You have to really learn the theoretical topic before you can even get started, learn the basics first . With other projects I worked on, the cancer data and the aerosol data, I also had to learn and read journal articles. But with this project, it was more like reading textbooks....But there are also similarities too to the other projects I've done. I’m still analyzing data using computer programs. (The programs generate data for us about the number of self-intersections on these curves vs. the length of the curve). And Prof. Chas is a great mentor. She’s really helpful.
When she first told me about the project, I didn’t really know that much about it. I’m not a theoretical math major. And it seemed confusing at first. But she helped me a lot, explained everything to me. Now I understand it better and I can see that it’s definitely possible for me to do this project. In the beginning I wondered if I was ever going to get a handle on this stuff. But once you conquer little bits and pieces, it becomes possible.
That’s a useful realization, for doing large-scale projects.
The main thing I’ve learned, overall, is that a project may seem daunting at first, but once I get started on reading about the topic at hand, I find that I get absorbed in it and forget about the amount of work it entails. Reading background literature helps. I didn’t know that much about aerosols when I started that BNL project, until I read up on the subject. Also with the work with Prof. Moyer, I had to read background articles and to find out what work has been done already, what work still needs to be done. ...What I like is that when you get involved in a project, and you read about alll the past work that people have done on this topic, you get a feeling that there are a lot of people working on the same thing with you. You realize that your work fits in somewhere in a bigger picture, you’re not isolated. So when I see my work as a piece of a larger investigation being done by many others, I realize that I can do it because I am not alone. Others are interested in the issues and their work is there to build upon.
Have you had opportunities to present your work?
The first professional-looking poster I made was for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute program, and I presented it at the URECA Celebration in 2007. I also did a presentation for the BNL-SULI poster session…That poster that I made for HHMI, I also brought to Washington DC for the Society of Behavioral Medicine Conference. I was able to attend that with Dr. Moyer. It was fun to be there. I like doing poster sessions. You have your poster right there as an aid. And it makes it easier to talk about your work.
Has being involved in research helped prepare you for the future?
I think that for anyone planning to go to graduate school, research is really important because that’s what you’re going to be doing later on. I think that it’s a really great opportunity if students can do that while they’re an undergraduate. Doing research just basically opens the door, lets you experience more things than you can just sitting in a classroom.
So you're glad you came to SB?
Stony Brook is a really good school, and the research is what makes the difference. You could go to any school in the world, and if all you do is sit and take classes, you’re not going to have the experience that someone who does research has. I’m definitely glad I came to Stony Brook.. I got a bunch of great opportunities here. I really like my major. I really like being in Honors College. And I really like everything I got to do!