Students gain research experience in Iowa

Junior mathematics major Dylan Macuk, left, and senior mathematics major Alex Sistko, right, participated in an eight-week research program at the University of Iowa during the summer.

January 9, 2012

Two mathematics majors, junior Dylan Macuk and senior Alex Sistko, participated in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at the University of Iowa over the summer. Students in the eight-week program participated in introductory workshops, then worked in small research groups with University of Iowa professors. Designed for highly motivated students, the program provided a stipend for participants, as well as various social and professional opportunities. Upon returning to the department, Dylan and Alex described their experiences in Iowa City.

By Dr. Tony Bedenikovic, Associate Professor of Mathematics

Dr. Bedenikovic: What was the hardest part about being away for eight weeks?
Macuk: Coming back!
Sistko: Nothing. I was sad to leave.

Dr. Bedenikovic: Have you suffered from bad mathematical dreams since returning?
Macuk: I had a strange dream that I was trapped on a Möbius strip, destined to travel its unending circuit forever. The strip is chiral, and I was stuck in the right-handed version. Something about non-orientable surfaces is very unnerving.
Sistko: I had bad dreams way before I went to Iowa.

Dr. Bedenikovic: What was the most profound thing said at the REU?
Macuk: Something like ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.’
Sistko: While in Iowa I hung out with Jorge Leon, this kid from Puerto Rico who had a firm conviction that success in mathematics doesn’t have to do with any spooky “super genius” intelligence, but rather with patience, dedication, and hard work. It was refreshing to hear a kid my age at the REU who wasn’t fully absorbed in our endemic hero worship.

Dr. Bedenikovic: What was the funniest thing said at the REU?
Macuk: ‘About two million,’ said by Raymond, a Chinese foreign exchange student, after stating that he comes from a small village in China and then being asked how many people live there.
Sistko: ‘Even if you were wandering around the New Mexican desert, at night, and you were drunk, you would come up with the same rules,’ said by Paul Hermann Zieschang, trying to convince a baffled classroom that the theory of semisimple rings is actually intuitive. 

Dr. Bedenikovic: What was your worst mathematical experience at the REU?
Macuk: My worst mathematical experience was being introduced to a lot of cool ideas and projects, but not having nearly enough time to adequately explore them all.
Sistko: I stayed up one night toiling feverishly on this proof for our research project. Convinced I’d found a simple proof, I immediately alerted the kids in my group. However, the next morning I saw that I’d made a rookie mistake — the whole proof rested on the assumption that a < b implies |a| < |b| (which is, of course, false).

Dr. Bedenikovic: What was your best mathematical experience at the REU?
Macuk: I really enjoyed attending the symposium at the end, which allowed me to see what everyone else had accomplished over the course of the REU. It’s fun to share ideas and learn together.
Sistko: Without a doubt, my workshop on noncommutative rings with Dr. Zieschang was the most stimulating mathematical experience. We got to see cool graduate level stuff way before we were supposed to.