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Maxwell geog student pursues research through NSF-Funded program

November 28, 2017 | By Kathleen Haley, SU News

Mathematics major Danika Van Niel ’18 conducted original research in algebraic geometry last summer within the Mathematics Department at Purdue University. In the process, she learned what a career in mathematics research involves—and discovered more about herself.

“I learned about my aptitudes, and that I am ready to seriously commit to research and graduate school,” Van Niel says.

Geography student Hamish Gibbs ’17 spent his summer of research with the School for the Environment at the University of Massachusetts in Boston looking at the impact land cover has on small organisms in cranberry bogs. He worked closely with a professor and a group of graduate students, spending time on field work, data collection and computer mapping.

“I felt supported while I completed my individual project and had the opportunity to learn new data analysis techniques with the help of my coworkers,” Gibbs says.

Both Van Niel and Gibbs participated in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, funded by the National Science Foundation. Both found their experiences enlightening and a boost to their research abilities.

They encourage other undergraduate students looking for research opportunities to consider applying for an REU in any number of research fields based at universities and colleges throughout the country.

“For those interested in digging deeply into a topic that they are passionate about or looking for a chance to try graduate school before deciding to apply, REU programs are a good choice,” Gibbs says. “For students interested in finding a job after graduation, the experience of completing a research project outside of your home university can help to improve your analytic skills and give you exposure to new academic fields.”

Van Niel, a member of the Renée Crown University Honors Program and a Coronat Scholar in the College of Arts and Sciences, emphasizes the variety of opportunities out there to pursue and advises students to keep trying even if they don’t get accepted at first.

“I applied my sophomore year to over a dozen programs and didn’t get into any, but my junior year I got into three!” Van Niel says.

To help students learn more about applying for an REU/summer research opportunity, an information session will be held Friday, Dec. 1, at 12:30 p.m. in 102 Hall of Languages. The Center for Fellowship and Scholarship Advising (CFSA) is hosting the event, which will include information on how to find and apply for REU opportunities and other STEM research opportunities, including the NOAA Hollings Scholarship, DAAD RISE and Amgen Scholars program. First-, second- and third-year STEM students with an interest in research are encouraged to attend.

Hamish GibbsGibbs was accepted into the Coastal Research in Environmental Science and Technology REU program at UMass Boston. The REU focused on coastal environmental research in a variety of fields, including physical science, ecology and policy research.

Gibbs was empowered to pursue an REU after conducting research for two years assisting a professor in the Department of Geography in the Maxwell School.

“My previous research both encouraged me to seek opportunities conducting research at another university and helped me build the required skills to apply for an REU program,” Gibbs says. “Though my research at Syracuse University was different from the research I conducted at UMass Boston, my experience at SU helped me demonstrate my research skills and understand what topics interested me.”

The REU helped him further develop his career interests and exposed him to new fields of research.

“The program allowed me to understand the expectations of research assistantships in graduate school and what types of opportunities are available,” Gibbs says. “I am grateful for the opportunity to conduct research independently in an academic setting before entering graduate school.”

Van Niel was drawn to Purdue Research in Mathematics Experience (PRiME) REU because of the nature of the program, the research matter and the location. During her eight-week experience, she worked under Professor Edray Goins of the mathematics department.

“I was part of a team of five undergraduate students, and we conducted original research in algebraic geometry,” Van Niel says. The group studied Belyi maps—an algebraic theorem involving curves devised by mathematician G. V. Belyi—and graphs, called Dessins d’Enfant, that represent the Belyi maps.

Inspired by her REU experience, Van Niel has applied to two other fellowships to further her research and has felt more prepared to tackle three graduate-level math classes this semester.

“I also feel confident in my decision to apply to math Ph.D. programs across the country,” she says.

For those wishing to pursue an REU, Van Niel notes the assistance of resources on campus to help with applications, including the Center for Fellowship and Scholarship Advising, Career Services and the Writing Center, as well as professors.

For more information about REUs and summer research opportunities, contact Jolynn Parker, CFSA director, at, or Naomi Shanguhyia, assistant director of advising with the honors program and CFSA, at