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Graduate Students Earn NASA/Mississippi Space Grant Consortium Fellowships

Fri, 07/30/2021 - 14:02pm | By: David Tisdale

Sarah Wright of Mobile, Alabama and Bailey Rester of Poplarville, Mississippi, both students in The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Computational Science Ph.D. program with an emphasis in mathematics, are recipients of the NASA/Mississippi Space Grant Consortium Graduate Research Fellowship for the upcoming academic year.

The Mississippi Space Grant Consortium (MSSGC) consists of 17 Mississippi
Space Grant Colleges and Universities, including USM. A key element of its mission is to encourage talented individuals to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields of study, the inspiration for the establishment of the Graduate Research Fellowship Awards. These awards are designed to supplement and enhance basic graduate research support, such as graduate research assistantships, graduate teaching assistantships, and non-federal scholarships and fellowships.

NASA/Mississippi Space Grant Consortium Graduate Research Fellowship awards are renewable up to a total of three years for students making satisfactory research, academic progress, and engaged in K-12 outreach; one of the goals of the fellowship is to have graduate students work with K-12 schools and educators to improve the STEM experience and inspire younger students to pursue careers in STEM fields..

Wright and Rester earned the fellowships by submitting a proposal for their dissertation research, which relates to NASA objectives, along with a proposal for a K-12 outreach activity, a required component of the fellowship which can be held for a maximum of three years. Wright renewed for her second year, while Rester will be in her first year as a fellow. Approximately eight-nine fellowships are awarded statewide each year.

Dr. James Lambers, a faculty member in the School of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, serves as major professor and mentor for Wright and Rester.

“In addition to the NASA fellowship, Sarah earned a summer internship from NREIP (Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program) and had her undergraduate honors thesis research published in a disciplinary journal, which is unusual in mathematics,” Dr. Lambers said. “This summer, Bailey presented her research from her master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation at conferences organized by SIAM (Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics), the leading professional organization for computational and applied mathematics.”

Sarah Wright Wright came USM in 2013 and completed a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and Spanish. During her undergraduate career, she had the opportunity to do research with Dr. Lambers and attend and present that research at a large conference, her first opportunity to experience the world of international researchers. She also lived abroad in Lima, Peru to study at a university there as an undergraduate, and after graduation, spent two years working with a non-profit organization in the Philippines.

In 2019, Wright came back to the U.S. and started working on a master’s degree in mathematics at USM; at that point, she knew she wanted to continue researching and pursue a Ph.D. Her research primarily focuses on applications of numerical analysis to solve problems with many layers.

“The world we live in has many layers, and our simulation methods need to account for this. Specifically, we want to simulate time-dependent physical phenomena more accurately and quickly such as heat diffusion, wave propagation, or fluid flow through heterogeneous media such as seismic waves traveling through multiple building materials. This is modeled using partial differential equations.

“As technology improves, one would think this could lead to better simulation; however, the opposite is true. As the spatial resolution is increased, the time step length shrinks so that the number of time steps needed grows exorbitantly, which causes the method to lose efficiency.”

Wright initially learned about the Mississippi Space Grant Consortium and NASA Fellowship through Dr. Lambers.

“This fellowship gives me the opportunity to focus on research during my graduate studies, as well as challenge me to give back to our community,” she said, “and my experiences overseas showed me how big the world is, and when coming back to the States, I knew there were things I could do within the field of mathematics to join the global community of researchers striving to better understand our world.”

She was selected a NASA fellow for the 2020-2021 school year, and even in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, was able to be involved in research, work with a local elementary school, and present at a virtual Math and Science teacher’s conference in January 2021.

“I am so excited to have been selected as a NASA Fellow again for this upcoming school year, as it will allow me to continue the work I started last year,” she said. “It has allowed me to learn from the other NASA fellows how they are working to better engage their local schools with interesting STEM activities, especially during this very trying year where many students were learning virtually.”

Bailey Rester Rester said research has given her an opportunity to be challenged and excited about all the unanswered questions in her field. “The higher I go in my study of mathematics, the more I realize there is to learn,” she said. “Research has helped me become a master of the things I have learned and has taught me the vast depth of topics that I have yet to learn, as well as to become a lifelong learner.” 

The recognition and research support that comes with the fellowship is “a big accomplishment for me, and I’m very pleased that all of the time and dedication I put into my application has paid off,” she continued.

“I look forward to continuing this fellowship next year and am very thankful for a university, mentors, and NASA, who have given me this opportunity.”

Her current research focus is to improve the techniques used by researchers in many STEM fields to produce more detailed and realistic simulation of time-dependent phenomena, such as wave propagation or diffusion of heat energy. 

“The time-stepping methods currently used to solve models in these applications are based on extremely outdated ideas, with only modest evolution since their creation, and therefore do not possess the necessary characteristics to make such high-resolution simulation practical,” Rester said. “For my dissertation, I plan to reformulate Krylov Subspace Spectral (KSS) methods, which are time-stepping methods for high-resolution simulation, to significantly enhance their efficiency and applicability. These improvements have the potential to substantially boost the productivity of researchers who rely on simulation. This is because they can spend far less time and effort generating simulation results that may be too unreliable to trust, which would allow them to focus on other tasks and have more time to test simulations with different parameters.

“Furthermore, because my enhanced KSS methods are designed to work with parameters that vary in both time and space, researchers do not have to make unrealistic assumptions about the problem and therefore can produce more reliable results.”

After completing her doctoral program, Rester plans to pursue a career as a professor of mathematics. “With this fellowship, I will have more freedom to focus on my research and activities that are crucial to launching my academic career, such as publishing and presenting my work at conferences,” she said.

The Schools of Mathematics and Natural Sciences and Computing Sciences and Computer Engineering are housed in the USM College of Arts and Sciences. For information about these schools, including their degree programs and the work of their faculty members, visit https://www.usm.edu/arts-sciences/index.php and https://www.usm.edu/computing-sciences-computer-engineering/index.php. For information about the Mississippi Space Grant Consortium, visit http://msspacegrant.org/.