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UB Team Wins Grueling 96-Hour International Math Contest

Release Date: June 12, 2008

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Most recent college graduates would love to forget the experience of "cramming" before a big exam, but two University at Buffalo graduates who spent 96 hours last semester doing just that have received multiple awards in the international 2008 Mathematical Contest in Modeling, in which 1,162 teams competed from universities around the world.

The UB team consisting of New York State residents Amy Evans of Rome and Tracy Stepien of Camillus was one of nine to be awarded an Outstanding Winner designation, placing in the top 1 percent of all papers submitted.

It was the first time that UB had entered a team in the 24-year-old contest. Previous winners were from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, among many other institutions.

In addition to the Outstanding Winners award, the UB students also were awarded the Ben Fusaro Award, named for the founder of the contest. They also won the SIAM prize given by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, awarded to one outstanding winner for "noteworthy originality and creativity in their modeling effort."

John Ringland, Ph.D., UB professor of mathematics in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, was the UB team's faculty advisor. An additional UB team earned an honorable mention for its entry in the contest; team members were Zachary Marzec of East Amherst, Quinessence Anx of Buffalo and Joseph Zennamo of Skaneateles.

The intense international contest is sponsored by the Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications. It requires undergraduate mathematics students to solve a complex, mathematical modeling problem within 96 hours.

During those 96 hours, students must research the literature on the problem, come up with a mathematical model, use computer programs to generate results from their model, draw conclusions and write a cogent paper describing their methods and results.

The UB students were asked to develop a model that described how the coast of Florida would be affected by the melting of the polar ice cap due to predicted increases in global temperatures. The students were required to model changes in the Florida coastline every decade for the next 50 years, with particular attention to large, metropolitan areas.

"The hardest part about competing in the contest was staying focused and not getting sick," recalls Stepien. "There is a lot of work that needs to be done in 96 hours and your ability to think very clearly deteriorates throughout the contest."

As a result of their contest win, the UB students are headed to the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics annual meeting in San Diego in July, where they will present their paper and attend workshops; SIAM is the major professional organization of applied mathematicians.

Stepien and Edwards said that their interest in "applied" mathematics -- in which mathematical techniques are used to solve problems in other scientific disciplines -- was stoked in part by such UB courses as Fundamentals of Applied Mathematics I and II taught by Brian Spencer, Ph.D., professor of mathematics, as well as Introduction to Numerical Analysis taught by Ringland.

Stepien, for example, completed undergraduate theses in mathematical physiology, analyzing and developing a mathematical model of renal dynamics under the guidance of E. Bruce Pitman, Ph.D., UB professor of mathematics and associate dean for research and sponsored programs, College of Arts and Sciences.

"What also helped in our success was that Tracy and I have worked together in the past in both the mathematics and music departments and have known each other since freshman year," said Evans. "We work well together, and our strengths and weaknesses balance each other."

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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