Space – Graduate Students Earn NASA/Mississippi Space Grant Consortium Fellowships
07/30/2021 – 14:02pm | By: David Tisdale
Sarah Wright of Mobile, Alabama and Bailey Rester of Poplarville, Mississippi, both
students in The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Computational Science Ph.D.
program with an emphasis in mathematics, are recipients of the NASA/Mississippi Space
Grant Consortium Graduate Research Fellowship for the upcoming academic year.
The Mississippi Space Grant Consortium (MSSGC) consists of 17 Mississippi
Space Grant Colleges and Universities, including USM. A key element of its mission
is to encourage talented individuals to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering
and Mathematics) fields of study, the inspiration for the establishment of the Graduate
Research Fellowship Awards. These awards are designed to supplement and enhance basic
graduate research support, such as graduate research assistantships, graduate teaching
assistantships, and non-federal scholarships and fellowships.
NASA/Mississippi Space Grant Consortium Graduate Research Fellowship awards are renewable
up to a total of three years for students making satisfactory research, academic progress,
and engaged in K-12 outreach; one of the goals of the fellowship is to have graduate
students work with K-12 schools and educators to improve the STEM experience and inspire
younger students to pursue careers in STEM fields..
Wright and Rester earned the fellowships by submitting a proposal for their dissertation
research, which relates to NASA objectives, along with a proposal for a K-12 outreach
activity, a required component of the fellowship which can be held for a maximum of
three years. Wright renewed for her second year, while Rester will be in her first
year as a fellow. Approximately eight-nine fellowships are awarded statewide each
Dr. James Lambers, a faculty member in the School of Mathematics and Natural Sciences,
serves as major professor and mentor for Wright and Rester.
“In addition to the NASA fellowship, Sarah earned a summer internship from NREIP (Naval
Research Enterprise Internship Program) and had her undergraduate honors thesis research
published in a disciplinary journal, which is unusual in mathematics,” Dr. Lambers
said. “This summer, Bailey presented her research from her master’s thesis and doctoral
dissertation at conferences organized by SIAM (Society for Industrial and Applied
Mathematics), the leading professional organization for computational and applied
Wright came USM in 2013 and completed a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and Spanish.
During her undergraduate career, she had the opportunity to do research with Dr. Lambers
and attend and present that research at a large conference, her first opportunity
to experience the world of international researchers. She also lived abroad in Lima,
Peru to study at a university there as an undergraduate, and after graduation, spent
two years working with a non-profit organization in the Philippines.
In 2019, Wright came back to the U.S. and started working on a master’s degree in
mathematics at USM; at that point, she knew she wanted to continue researching and
pursue a Ph.D. Her research primarily focuses on applications of numerical analysis
to solve problems with many layers.
“The world we live in has many layers, and our simulation methods need to account
for this. Specifically, we want to simulate time-dependent physical phenomena more
accurately and quickly such as heat diffusion, wave propagation, or fluid flow through
heterogeneous media such as seismic waves traveling through multiple building materials.
This is modeled using partial differential equations.
“As technology improves, one would think this could lead to better simulation; however,
the opposite is true. As the spatial resolution is increased, the time step length
shrinks so that the number of time steps needed grows exorbitantly, which causes the
method to lose efficiency.”
Wright initially learned about the Mississippi Space Grant Consortium and NASA Fellowship
through Dr. Lambers.
“This fellowship gives me the opportunity to focus on research during my graduate
studies, as well as challenge me to give back to our community,” she said, “and my
experiences overseas showed me how big the world is, and when coming back to the States,
I knew there were things I could do within the field of mathematics to join the global
community of researchers striving to better understand our world.”
She was selected a NASA fellow for the 2020-2021 school year, and even in the midst
of the Coronavirus pandemic, was able to be involved in research, work with a local
elementary school, and present at a virtual Math and Science teacher’s conference
in January 2021.
“I am so excited to have been selected as a NASA Fellow again for this upcoming school
year, as it will allow me to continue the work I started last year,” she said. “It
has allowed me to learn from the other NASA fellows how they are working to better
engage their local schools with interesting STEM activities, especially during this
very trying year where many students were learning virtually.”
Rester said research has given her an opportunity to be challenged and excited about
all the unanswered questions in her field. “The higher I go in my study of mathematics,
the more I realize there is to learn,” she said. “Research has helped me become a
master of the things I have learned and has taught me the vast depth of topics that
I have yet to learn, as well as to become a lifelong learner.”
The recognition and research support that comes with the fellowship is “a big accomplishment
for me, and I’m very pleased that all of the time and dedication I put into my application has
paid off,” she continued.
“I look forward to continuing this fellowship next year and am very thankful for a
university, mentors, and NASA, who have given me this opportunity.”
Her current research focus is to improve the techniques used by researchers in many
STEM fields to produce more detailed and realistic simulation of time-dependent phenomena,
such as wave propagation or diffusion of heat energy.
“The time-stepping methods currently used to solve models in these applications are
based on extremely outdated ideas, with only modest evolution since their creation,
and therefore do not possess the necessary characteristics to make such high-resolution
simulation practical,” Rester said. “For my dissertation, I plan to reformulate Krylov
Subspace Spectral (KSS) methods, which are time-stepping methods for high-resolution
simulation, to significantly enhance their efficiency and applicability. These improvements
have the potential to substantially boost the productivity of researchers who rely
on simulation. This is because they can spend far less time and effort generating
simulation results that may be too unreliable to trust, which would allow them to focus
on other tasks and have more time to test simulations with different parameters.
“Furthermore, because my enhanced KSS methods are designed to work with parameters
that vary in both time and space, researchers do not have to make unrealistic assumptions
about the problem and therefore can produce more reliable results.”
After completing her doctoral program, Rester plans to pursue a career as a professor
of mathematics. “With this fellowship, I will have more freedom to focus on my research
and activities that are crucial to launching my academic career, such as publishing
and presenting my work at conferences,” she said.
The Schools of Mathematics and Natural Sciences and Computing Sciences and Computer
Engineering are housed in the USM College of Arts and Sciences. For information about
these schools, including their degree programs and the work of their faculty members,
visit https://www.usm.edu/arts-sciences/index.php and https://www.usm.edu/computing-sciences-computer-engineering/index.php. For information about the Mississippi Space Grant Consortium, visit http://msspacegrant.org/.