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College team wins top honors in international math contest

February 12, 2001

For the second year in a row, Lewis & Clark students won top honors in an international mathematical modeling competition, sponsored by the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications.

The competition challenges students to apply mathematical skills, interdisciplinary problem-solving abilities and writing competence to clarify, analyze and propose solutions to open-ended problems.

A total of 579 three-person teams from throughout the world participated in the Mathematical Contest in Modeling and Interdisciplinary Contest in Modeling. Only 2 percent of the solutions received the highest designation of “outstanding.”

A Lewis & Clark team was one of 83 that tackled the interdisciplinary problem. It was one of only three teams to receive the highest rating.

The consortium will publish Lewis & Clark’s paper in the Journal of Undergraduate Mathematics and Its Applications.

The College’s winning team members are seniors Nasreen Ilias from Beaverton, who is pursuing two majors, one in biochemistry and one in computer science and mathematics; Marie Spong from Overland Park, Kan., who is double-majoring in chemistry and Hispanic studies; and James Tucker from Salt Lake City, Utah, who is majoring in physics.


The strategy

Teams began downloading one of the modeling problems from the COMAP Web site at midnight EST, Feb. 9. They had 96 hours to complete their analysis and solution of the problem, using any available resource materials. But they weren’t allowed to discuss the problem with anyone other than their teammates.

“The first challenge we had was downloading the problem,” Ilias says. “We had to wait an hour-and-a-half to retrieve it, because all of the teams were trying to download the same information at the same time.”

“We had no idea what our problem would be,” Tucker comments.

“We didn’t expect it to incorporate as much science as it did,” Ilias says.

“But because of our interdisciplinary interests, we are all well versed in science,” Tucker continues. “So, we were capable of reading the relevant research material.”

The multipart problem focused on Zebra mussels—small, fingernail-sized freshwater mollusks, unintentionally introduced to North America via ballast water from a transoceanic vessel. Since their introduction in the mid-1980s, Zebra mussels have spread through the Great Lakes and to an increasing number of inland waterways in the United States and Canada.

The mussels have significantly impacted the Great Lakes’ ecosystem and economy. The teams had to research the environmental variables related to the infestation and had to determine how to eliminate or prevent the spread of the aquatic pests.

During the ensuing four days, the Lewis & Clark team read more than 100 papers, analyzed the problem, determined a course of action, prepared graphs and wrote an 18-page paper.

“We spent the entire first day doing research,” Tucker explains.

“Then, we intuitively divided the responsibilities,” Ilias comments.

Spong began graphing the data, while Ilias and Tucker scanned scientific papers for relevant information. By Saturday, Tucker had built one model; Spong worked on another.

“We worked parallel to each other to give ourselves more options,” Tucker says.

“We got along well,” Spong says. “We could look at the various models and ask, ‘Does this one work? Does another model make more sense?’”

On the final day, the team devised a divide-and-conquer strategy. Team members divided the paper into sections, and each member began to write.

“We’d get together every few hours to see how it was coming together,” Tucker says.

“The difficult part was coming up with good transitions,” Spong adds.


Rogers Science Research Program

All three team members credit the John S. Rogers Science Research Program for helping them develop the skills necessary to approach open-ended problems.

Spong spent two summers under the program working on research projects with James Duncan, professor of chemistry. Ilias conducted research with Deborah Lycan, associate professor of biology. And Tucker spent one summer working on a research project in biochemistry with Janis Lochner, Dr. Robert B. Pamplin, Jr., Professor of Science, and Bethe Scalettar, associate professor of physics, and spent a second summer working on research in astrophysics with Tom Olsen, associate professor of physics.

The team particularly thanks the Department of Mathematical Sciences for its encouragement and support.


International winning teams

Of the 579 three-person teams that participated in the modeling competition, 12 teams submitted solutions that were judged as “outstanding.”

Problem A: U.S. Military Academy, N.Y.; University of Cork College, Ireland; and Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

Problem B: Duke University, N.C.; The Governor’s School, Va.; Wake Forest University, N.C.; Harvey Mudd College, Calif.; and Lawrence Technological University, Mich.

Interdisciplinary Problem: Lewis & Clark College; Humboldt State University, Calif.; and Harvey Mudd College.

—by Jean Kempe-Ware


James Tucker

Major: Physics

Current research:Solar physics (spring semester and the coming summer). With Herschel Snodgrass, professor of physics.

Goal: Medicine, space exploration or nuclear energy. Upon graduation, Tucker will work as an emergency medical technician for the American Red Cross. He plans to return to academics by 2002.

 Quote: “I see myself as a doctor, an astronaut or a professor. I haven’t narrowed it down yet.”

“Lewis & Clark’s Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences has provided us with far better research opportunities than most undergraduates could ever hope for, and I think this contributed greatly to our success.”


Marie Spong

Majors: Chemistry, Hispanic studies

Current research:Honors thesis in chemistry on the effects of benzo[a]pyrene lesions on DNA bending. Benzo[a]pyrene is commonly found in cigarette smoke and has been linked to the development of lung cancer. With James Duncan, professor of chemistry.

Honors: Barry Goldwater Scholar, Barbara Hirshi Neely Scholar 

Goal: Graduate studies in bio-organic chemistry. Spong has been accepted into graduate programs at the University of Chicago, Harvard University, Stanford University and Yale University.

Quote: “Professor Duncan is acting like a proud father. He took a real interest in helping me develop my skills in chemistry. He cares what happens to me.”

“Lewis & Clark’s liberal arts education prepares you to work on interdisciplinary problems. Through our education, we gain broad exposure to a number of areas.”


Nasreen Ilias

Majors:Biochemistry, computer science and mathematics

Current research:Honors thesis in biochemistry on the effect of chronic intermittent in utero morphine exposure on the transcriptional regulation of guinea pig mu-opioid receptor. With Dr. George Olsen, Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Oregon Health Sciences University. Ilias has conducted independent research at OHSU for five years.

Honors: Dr. Robert B. Pamplin, Jr., Society of Fellows, M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust Scholar, Ben Cheney Scholar, Trustee Scholar

Goal: Trauma surgeon. She is currently applying to medical school.

Quote: “I designed my education to increase my awareness of technology. Research and development is accelerating in medicine, and I don’t think it will slow down. The best doctors are up-to-date on the latest technological advances.”


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