Mathematics adjunct welcomes visiting research students
By Steven Powell, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-1923
More than a year ago, Francisco Blanco-Silva saw how well a summer research experience worked out for a visiting Morris College undergraduate, and he felt an immediate kinship.
“As you can tell from my name, I am a minority,” said Blanco-Silva, a part-time instructor in the mathematics department. “I have always felt I should help people who are in a similar situation.”
In the summer of 2012 Virginia Johnson, a colleague in the USC mathematics department, was working with Fabian Maple, a student at the historically black college in Sumter participating in a summer research experience at USC. “I got to see what they were doing, and I loved it,” Blanco-Silva said.
Blanco-Silva told Johnson he was interested in the program, and at the end of the 2013 spring semester Lauren Clark, the research program manager in the Office of Research, asked if he wanted to be a mentor over the summer. Prakash Nagarkatti, the vice president for research, had recently instituted the SMART program at USC to help faculty train under-represented minority students in research. Blanco-Silva elected to work with Maple and Oliver Holmes, a rising senior, over the summer.
Blanco-Silva grew up in Spain, completing a bachelor’s degree in pure mathematics at Universidad Complutense in Madrid. When he came to the United State to earn a doctoral degree, in applied mathematics at Purdue University, and then work as a postdoctoral fellow in the Interdisciplinary Mathematics Institute at USC in 2007, he found a lot of opportunities.
“The academic resources that we have in the United States are much more than what I had available in Spain,” he said. “I could feel that when I arrived."
“Fabian and Oliver do not have access to the same resources that we have at a big university like USC, and maybe that is why they showed such a strong drive to succeed. They got pretty excited – and it is contagious.”
Their research project addressed the question, “Can computers prove theorems?” Maple and Holmes used the software packages GeoGebra and SageMath to examine Feuerbach circles – the circle that goes through the midpoint of each side of a given triangle.
“We used Euclidean geometry, because it is very visual,” said Blanco-Silva. “So they learned a little bit of geometry, enough so they could understand the problem. They learned a little bit of computer programming, enough so they could do the coding.”
The students’ skill with programming was unexpected – and highly beneficial.
“That was impressive – they learned the software so much faster than I would have imagined,” said Blanco-Silva. “That made things much easier.”
The summer involved two months of daily sessions, two to four hours Monday through Friday. “They did an immense amount of work,” said Blanco-Silva.
And the experience was about more than simply accumulating facts. “It’s not just what you learn, it’s about learning the process,” said Holmes. “With a project like this, it was hard to understand some of it at first, but it’s all about talking to your mentor and just breaking through that.”
Holmes is seriously considering graduate school – with USC a possibility. Maple, a rising junior, is thinking about a teaching career in high school mathematics. “I’d get a master’s degree, and I’d love to come to USC for that,” he said.
Blanco-Silva keeps a full schedule. He teaches three to four classes a semester as an adjunct faculty member at USC, runs a consulting business (Tizona Scientific Solutions), maintains an active blog, recently published a book (Learning Scipy for Numerical and Scientific Computing) and welcomed a daughter into his family earlier this year.
But will he take the time out to work with students again next summer? “That is a definite yes,” he said. “It was a wonderful experience.”