Professor Shares Math's Beauty

March 12, 2012

GW’s Svetlana Roudenko awarded prestigious NSF grant for research and teaching.

Svetlana Roudenko, an assistant professor of mathematics, sees math as beautiful. That’s because of its wide utility, she said, and applicability to a wide variety of real-world problems. Her research on a specific type of equation may help us learn how to predict the formation of ocean “super waves” that can damage ships, how to focus a laser beam through different media so that it can reliably burn—or not burn—a specific point, and how airline pilots can differentiate minor turbulence from the dangerous kind.

Dr. Roudenko’s work was recently recognized with a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant, a prestigious award worth $450,000 over five years awarded to junior faculty members who excel at both research and teaching. Her award is the first for GW’s math department. Her winning grant proposed a project in which she’ll work on developing a theory to better explain how nonlinear evolution equations function, and will also focus on teaching students at many levels—from ninth graders up through graduate school—how to explore and enjoy mathematics.

“The beauty of math is that you can take models and study them in abstract ways and obtain results, which you can then interpret in all different directions,” Dr. Roudenko said. “And you can connect airplanes with waves and lasers and quantum dynamics and all kinds of things.”

Descriptions of real-life processes lead to the formulation of equations whose solutions change over time, she explained. Equations describing waves or dispersions display this type of behavior, and allow researchers to look at prescribed initial conditions and predict outcomes and construct solutions. Application areas are widely varied, and include medical imaging and signal processing, in addition to the airplane and laser applications.

For the outreach and teaching portions of the grant, Dr. Roudenko will work to create vertical integration of math education, starting with young students. She’ll work with children in the DC Math Circle, a program created by Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies Daniel Ullman in which ninth grade students gather weekly to work on interactive math problems that encourage creative, nonlinear thinking.

She’ll also teach high school students in GW’s Precollege program, which attracts more than 200 high-achieving high schoolers to campus each summer, and will lecture at the math department’s Summer Program for Women in Math, a selective program for talented female undergraduates. And at the graduate level, she is organizing a “D.C. Grad Camp” with a focus on attracting students traditionally underrepresented in graduate math departments.

Columbian College Assistant Dean for Research Geralyn Schulz said Dr. Roudenko’s dedication to both her research and to teaching make her CAREER award well deserved.

“By integrating her passions for research, teaching and outreach, Professor Roudenko will bring STEM education to life for many underrepresented students and demonstrate the applicability of math to solve real-world problems,” Dr. Schulz said. “Professor Roudenko's award thus exemplifies the mission of Columbian College—to be a catalyst for the study and advancement of a spectrum of social and scientific imperatives.”

Dr. Roudenko submitted a CAREER grant application last year as well—her first year at GW. That proposal was rejected, but the comments she received were very helpful, she said.

“One of the nicest comments was ‘She should consider reapplying,’” Dr. Roudenko said. “That gave me courage to do it again.”

She said Dr. Schulz helped her prepare her next grant application by conducting a workshop on writing a stronger CAREER proposal and providing feedback on her progress. And when she learned, in late January, that this proposal had been accepted and she would receive the grant, her first emotion was disbelief.

“Only a few people get this award, and I thought, ‘Is this happening for real?’” she said. “I got a lot of support from our chair and our faculty.”

Mathematics department chair Yongwu Rong said that in Dr. Roudenko’s two years in the department, she has already helped increase its research profile.

“Within a short time, she has already played a significant role in building vibrant research and educational activities in our department,” he said. “She has a very broad view about our research and educational mission. That has contributed to her truly competitive CAREER proposal, which I found to be full of original ideas.”

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