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Ursula Whitcher receives NSF grant for mathematical physics workshop

April 9, 2014
Dr. Ursula Whitcher

EAU CLAIRE — Dr. Ursula Whitcher, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire assistant professor of mathematics, has received a grant from the National Science Foundation's Conferences and Workshops in the Mathematical Sciences program for her project titled "Undergraduate Summer School in Supersymmetry."

The project involves a weeklong workshop for undergraduate students on the mathematics of supersymmetry, to be held in May at the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences at the University of British Columbia. The grant will provide full funding — travel expenses and room and board — for 10 undergraduate students and one graduate student teaching assistant from the United States, partial funding for three students from the University of Maryland who are currently conducting research in this field, and funding for five Canadian participants from the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences.

"NSF programs such as this are very competitive, and the fact that Dr. Whitcher's proposal was funded is a reflection of her expertise in her research area and accomplishments supervising undergraduate research projects," said Dr. Alex Smith, mathematics department chair. "In fact, in the mathematics department's recent program review, Michael Dorff, a mathematics professor at Brigham Young University and a national authority on student/faculty research in mathematics, identified our department as being in the top 10 percent of departments of mathematics in the nation who employ this high-impact practice."

In physics, supersymmetry is a pairing between bosons and fermions appearing in theories of subatomic particles. Supersymmetry may be studied mathematically by using Adinkras, which are graphs with vertices representing the particles in a supersymmetric theory and edges corresponding to the supersymmetry pairings. The workshop will combine lectures on the mathematics of supersymmetry, emphasizing graph theory and algebraic structures, with problem-solving sessions. Sylvester James Gates, a prominent mathematical physicist at the University of Maryland and recipient of the National Medal of Science, will be the keynote speaker.

"Receiving this grant is very exciting," Whitcher said. "I hope this becomes a way to get more people excited about math and physics."

The study of Adinkras highlights a deep connection between algebraic, combinatorial and physical structures, Whitcher said.

"We have a unique opportunity to introduce undergraduates to this topic and encourage them to pursue further research at the boundary of mathematics and physics," Whitcher said. "The workshop will have direct impact on undergraduate education by introducing students to a thriving area of research outside the standard curriculum. We also will give students tools to choose and evaluate a graduate program, and provide them with valuable skills in using computer algebra systems for mathematical experimentation."

The weeklong project also provides students with the opportunity to create connections and build a network of support with other mathematics students, Whitcher said.

Whitcher has participated in a number of research workshops and conferences nationally and internationally, frequently giving presentations on topics in mathematical physics. Her essay about math and rock climbing, titled "Math Anxiety and Gym Class, or How Teaching Math Led Me to Scale High Walls," appeared in the November 2011 issue of Math Horizons, a magazine for undergraduates interested in mathematics published by the Mathematical Association of America.

Whitcher's most recent article, "Short Tops and Semistable Degenerations," features work by several of her research students, one of whom is a UW-Eau Claire alumnus and two who are current UW-Eau Claire students. The article has been accepted for publication in Experimental Mathematics, a journal devoted to experimental aspects of mathematical research.

For more information about the "Undergraduate Summer School in Supersymmetry" project, contact Dr. Ursula Whitcher at or 715-836-2657.





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