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Undergraduate Math Research

Department:Mathematics and Statistics
Professor: James P. Solazzo
Professor Webpage: http://www.coastal.edu/academics/science/departments/math/faculty/solazzo

The telephone rings in Dr. James Solazzo’s small office in the corner of the Wall building. Dr. Solazzo politely explains to Public Safety that they have dialed the wrong number and that he lacks the ability to transfer them. He begins to hang up, then bursts into a grin as he excitedly jokes, “I can help you with math, though!”

This infectious enthusiasm for the pursuit of mathematics is a trademark of Dr. Solazzo, who last year secured funding from Brigham Young University’s Center for Undergraduate Research in Mathematics (CURM) to promote undergraduate studies here in Coastal Carolina University’s math department. 

A self-described “fundamentalist mathematician,”  Dr. Solazzo came to Coastal in 2004 after receiving both his M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Houston, and completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Georgia. His hand-picked team of undergraduate researchers consisted of juniors Kyle Rollins and Marlene Gonzalez, and seniors Lauren Tomlinson and Taylor Baldwin. The team devoted their research to the study of coding theory, an area of mathematics that deals with the detection and correction of errors in messages.

Coding theory has applications in a vast array of everyday activities, from messages broadcasted via satellites to spell-check on your word processor. When information is sent electronically, it is typically encoded in such a manner as to increase the likelihood of being correctly transmitted even if distortion or noise has been introduced on its path from the source to the receiver. This is typically accomplished by introducing redundancy in the coded message. The challenge comes from balancing a high degree of redundancy (and therefore accuracy) with a reasonable rate of message transmission; long messages with a lot of redundancy have a higher chance of being correctly decoded by the receiver but take a longer time to transmit and store. Under Dr. Solazzo’s supervision, Rollins, Gonzalez, Tomlinson, and Baldwin researched different solutions to this problem. Together, they presented their report, “Investigating the Construction and Use of Linear Codes in Binary Symmetric Channels,” at the 2011 CURM Spring Research Conference at Brigham Young.

In addition to the student presentations, the spring conference hosts several keynote speakers, aiming to expose undergraduates to applications of mathematics outside of academia and prepare them for potential post-graduate studies and careers. For scholars who are first-generation college students or who might not have initially considered going to graduate school, this
opportunity can be life-changing. Both Tomlinson and Baldwin graduated from Coastal and are continuing their studies by pursuing graduate degrees. Rollins presented research at the annual Joint Mathematics Meeting in January 2011, and Gonzalez undertook a summer research experience for undergraduates (REU) at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette under the supervision of a professor whom she met at the BYU conference.

Started in 2007 at Brigham Young with support from the National Science Foundation, CURM annually awards mini-grants to selected faculty members at various schools across the country, hoping to stimulate interest and knowledge in undergraduate math research. Stipends are provided to both the professor and the students on their research team. While many REUs typically span a few weeks in the summer, the CURM projects last throughout the school year and culminate in a springtime math conference hosted by BYU.

Undergraduate research in mathematics differs greatly from other fields. In natural sciences, for instance, students can work together as a group or under a professor, sometimes even producing publishable results. Mathematics research is still struggling to implement a similar system; the difficulty comes primarily from creating interesting projects that are still accessible to
students. It’s also relatively new - in the early 1990s, around only 25 undergraduate students typically participated in the Joint Mathematics Meetings presentation sessions. In 2011, that number was over 300, and the scheduled attendance for the upcoming gathering is already the highest in the group’s history.

Being on the leading edge of advancing collegiate mathematics studies is a great honor for Dr. Solazzo and his team. Needless to say, the accomplishments of his students are immensely satisfying for Solazzo, whose passion for promoting mathematics drives him to encourage students to succeed and thrive, both at Coastal and beyond.

James P. Solazzo


CURM at BYU: http://curm.byu.edu/
Mathematics Research for Undergraduates: http://www.maa.org/cupm/CUPM-UG-research.pdf
An Introduction to Coding Theory: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2686661