A peek round the corner - introducing undergraduates to mathematical research

What is it like to do mathematical research? Many undergraduates wonder this, as they consider whether they would like to pursue graduate studies. There is no better way for the department to answer the question than to give undergraduates the opportunity to work on their own mathematical research projects. This summer the Oxford Mathematics enabled around 50 students to carry out such projects, working with faculty and postdocs in the department.

Eliza Casapopol (Balliol College) did a project with Dr Tom Sanders. "The summer project was a great opportunity for me as a mathematician. It has given me insight into what research is about and the biggest achievement was that it taught me to enjoy asking and answering my own questions. I think the project has given me a better idea about research and its challenges compared to what I knew so far, and it allowed me to see which areas of maths I am most interested in. Even if it seems like a difficult path, these past weeks have showed me that there is so much sense of fulfilment when you understand a proof or manage to come up with a new question or idea."

Rosemary Walmsley (Worcester College) worked with Professor Alison Etheridge, and said "my summer project has been a fantastic opportunity to experience mathematical research, and has given me a really valuable taste of what it would be like to do postgraduate study. It's been great to be able to get engrossed in an area I knew relatively little about beforehand - probabilistic models used in genetics - and to be able to explore it in a less prescribed way than I am used to with lecture courses. The project was more varied than I expected: reading papers, posing new questions, working on these questions, discussing ideas with my supervisor and DPhil students and writing up what I'd done. I would very much recommend doing a summer project!"

Shati Patel (Lady Margaret Hall) was part of a group of students who worked with Dr Jennifer Balakrishnan. "I really enjoyed doing a summer project as it's a completely different way of working compared to term time lectures and problem sheets. Not only was I introduced to some interesting theory about elliptic curves, I also got some general experience writing code and working with the command line. Our project involved about 10 people so it was incredibly useful to help each other and share ideas."

There is no doubt that this window on to a possible future is vital. Students not only learned about the process of research and its mix of personal focus and collaboration, they also were given a taste of new areas of mathematics beyond their current experience, the areas where Oxford mathematicians are leading the world in research and where these students might one day join them.

Three students received financial support from the London Mathematical Society. Eliza Casapopol (Balliol College), Daniel Fletcher (Oriel College) and Lorenzo Sarnataro (Worcester College) were among the 36 students selected nationally to receive funding, which was matched using funds from the Mathematical Institute and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Further students were supported by EPSRC funding distributed through the Oxford Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division. Oxford Mathematics' own funding enabled a significantly larger number of high-achieving students to experience what it is like to do mathematical research.