Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011
The language of math: Senior takes scholarly passion to next level with UCLA research program
MANHATTAN -- When Perla Salazar arrived in the United States, she did not speak a word of English. A native of Mexico, Salazar and her family moved to Dodge City to be near other family members. Learning a new language presented countless challenges for the incoming seventh-grader. But one subject required no translations and changed her life in the process: mathematics.
Salazar followed her passion to Dodge City Community College on a full scholarship. After graduating with honors, she received a Bridges to the Future grant to attend Kansas State University. Now a senior in mathematics, Salazar has been active in the university's Developing Scholars Program. That experience helped her land a prestigious research experience for undergraduates this summer at the University of California-Los Angeles.
Marianne Korten, professor of mathematics and Salazar's research adviser, wishes she could have more students like Salazar.
"She's the brightest student I have ever worked with," Korten said. "What makes her special is that she's very nice and has qualities that are good to find in a student. She never panics, she goes to work and something comes out of it. When you have those steel nerves you end up finding more than you intended because nothing holds you back."
Salazar has been conducting a research project with Korten and Charles Moore, professor of mathematics, for more then two years. The research involves finding explicit solutions to a certain differential equation. Those solutions are used to estimate the general behavior of other solutions. The trio has found three solutions and is working on publishing the results. The findings are significant, according to Salazar.
"Finding the solutions is great because it advances a theory — and there is no general theory on finding solutions to this equation," she said.
Salazar used her extensive resume of research in pure mathematics while at UCLA this summer. The university's Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics hosted the research experience for undergraduates. A rare research experience, Salazar competed with more than 400 applicants from around the world for one of 36 spots. She was selected and participated in the Research in Industrial Projects for Students, which matched researchers with a project proposed by industry.
Working with the Los Angeles Police Department, Salazar's research team developed an algorithm that analyzes previous crime data and attempts to predict where future crimes will occur. The team focused on car burglaries in a certain section of the city and analyzed five years of data. Team members gave their prototype to the police department at the end of the summer.
The experience provided some clarity for Salazar's plans.
"It helped me make the decision to attend graduate school, but I didn't know what side to take: pure or applied mathematics," she said. "Although I did enjoy the project and it was interesting, I'm certain that I will study pure."
Salazar plans to pursue a possible career in both academia and industry. She credits her drive and ambition to her family.
"My parents have always pushed for higher education," she said. "My dad helped me with my math homework. My husband has also been very helpful. All the people have pushed me to where I am."Salazar has earned many honors, including the James R. Coffman Award of Excellence from the Developing Scholars Program, the Research Scholar Award from the university's McNair Scholars Program; and the Waldemar J. Trjitzinsky Memorial Award from the American Mathematical Society.