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This story is part of our news archives, prior to July 2010.

Emily Howland works for Amazon Watch

Amelia McNamara ’10
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Mathematics, English

Why math and English: My majors prompt a lot of questions because they’re so different, but I think using both sides of my brain keeps me balanced.

Research: Applied math research to improve the efficiency of a new type of solar cells at the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications, housed at the University of Minnesota, through REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates).

Research goal: Unlike the usual silicone cells, the solar cells I was studying are made of organic polymers, so they are cheap, and could be added to a number of different types of surfaces, including fabric. These cells are made up of layers of different polymers (including Fullerenes, otherwise known as Bucky balls!), and the thickness of each of the layers impacts how the cell functions. My project was to optimize the layer thicknesses of the important polymers in order to improve the efficiency of the cell.

Preparation: Since it was an applied math program, my courses in Differential Equations and Continuous Applied Math really helped me. I took them with Professor Chad Topaz, who is my capstone advisor and a wonderful resource throughout my time at Macalester.

Results: Applied math can assist the sciences in targeting their experimentation; knowing what layer thicknesses should theoretically produce the most efficient cell may help them reduce the number of trials they need to do.

Conference presentation: The conference I attended was a joint meeting of the Mathematical Association of America and the American Mathematical Society. I presented in a session where professors presented their research! It was extremely nerve-wracking, since my group was the only group of undergraduates presenting in that session. The AMS also asked me to chair the session and I also got to meet one of my favorite mathematicians, Steven Strogatz. It was a great experience!

Future plans: Although I had been considering graduate school in mathematics before the program, this REU showed me that I could be successful in research, and convinced me to apply to graduate school.

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