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Math senior finds inspiration from women mathematicians at OSU

It is fairly uncommon to win a major international honor just a month before graduation — a sort of icing on the graduation cake. But mathematics Honors student Sara Tro has achieved just that. Sara and her teammates — fellow math majors Andrea Lanz and Michael Kupperman — were given a very high rank in the 2019 Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications (COMAP) Mathematical Contest in Modeling. The team was awarded Meritorious Winner, placing it in the top seven percent internationally. Only 42 teams did better! To put things in perspective, 14,108 teams from around the world took part in the modeling contest.

This year’s COMAP contest ran for four days in January. During that time, Sara and her team researched, modeled, and submitted a solution to one of three modeling problems.

“It was an exhausting weekend, and we balanced classes and working on the modeling problem on Thursday and Friday.  But I am very happy that we got a high rank,” said Sara.

Sara, who also holds minors in actuarial science and Spanish, completed her Honors thesis, in which she analyzed a proposed model by combining Maxwell’s equations with the Duffing model, under the guidance of mathematics professor Vrushali Bokil.

“While doing the research was valuable, just having a mentor who I met and had conversations with every week made a big difference.”

Sara has gained admission to the graduate program in the Department of Applied Mathematics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she will begin her Ph.D. in August. While she was offered a spot at other schools, Sara chose CU Boulder encouraged by her advisor, Bokil, who was excited about the program and recommended it highly. And for good reason. The graduate program in applied mathematics at CU Boulder ranks 14th in the nation.

Sara says that doing research for her Honors thesis with Bokil was one of the highlights of her time as an undergraduate student. Interactions with her mentor helped to demystify many aspects of academia.

“Doing the thesis with Dr. Bokil was a really important experience for me. While doing the research was valuable, just having a mentor who I met and had conversations with every week made a big difference,” said Sara. “We talked about what classes to choose, where I was going to graduate school and what to look for in graduate school.”

Sara grew up in Canby, Oregon, the daughter of a police officer and a nurse. She enjoyed science and mathematics in school and excelled at the subjects. She chose to major in mathematics towards the end of high school after discovering that she enjoyed physics and chemistry because they contained math. “To me, math was a lot more perfect and beautiful in and of itself than other fields that utilized math,” observed Sara.

After looking at liberal arts schools in Washington, Sara chose Oregon State University for undergraduate studies because she was offered a coveted spot in the Honors College. Plus, as an Oregon resident, OSU was going to be the least expensive school among her choices. But she didn’t know much else about the mathematics department at OSU before she arrived on campus as a wide-eyed freshman.

“As a high school student, I didn’t know what to look for in a mathematics department,” said Sara.

But things worked out very well for the next four years. “I am glad I ended up in a larger math department with a big focus on research, unlike the small liberal arts colleges that I looked at,” Sara observed.

As for a first impression, she was pleasantly surprised and inspired by the number of women math professors she met at OSU.  In fact, the number of women mathematicians at OSU is well above the national average — 30% compared to just 16% at doctoral-level mathematics departments nationwide.

“In my very first term, I had a vector calculus class with Dr. Elaine Cozzi. I thought it was so great,” said Sara. “After taking a number of classes, I started to realize that all my favorite math professors were women. It helps to see other women in front of the room.”

Some of Sara favorite math courses include the ones on differential equations and mathematical biology with Bokil and mathematical modeling classes with Professor Malgo Peszynska.

Beyond mathematics, Sara has fulfilled another significant goal as an undergraduate student. An Honors Experience Scholarship led her to participate in the OSU in Cuba program for two weeks in 2017. The granddaughter of Cuban immigrants, Tro had always wanted to visit Cuba. During the trip, she visited museums and cultural centers, medical clinics, schools, the Bay of Pigs, and got a taste of the artistic, cultural, historical and political and landscape through conversations, lectures and lessons from a diversity of local experts.

“After taking a number of classes, I started to realize that all my favorite math professors were women. It helps to see other women in front of the room.”

Closer to home, a Research Experiences for Undergraduates scholarship took her to a program in computational and applied mathematics at UCLA. There she worked on a project to create new algorithms to analyze and classify video data from cameras worn by Los Angeles Police Department officers. While the mathematician in her didn’t find the machine learning-focused research project very compelling, Sara acquired the knack of reading academic papers, engaged in collaborative work with her team and honed her presentation skills.

A straight-A student, Sara has garnered several awards for her academic achievements. These include the mathematics department’s Edward Stockwell Award and the WIC Culture of Writing Award and OSU’s Finley Academic Excellence Scholarship. She was also inducted into the math honor society Pi Mu Epsilon and the academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa.

What drives Sara’s passion for mathematics? “I love that math can represent reality, and one can use mathematics to accomplish that.” She adds, “But I also just enjoy doing math problems.”

As she moves on with her life as a mathematician, there is no doubt that Sara will continue to find opportunities to do what she loves best.

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