SPRINGFIELD , Ohio—When Ellen Peterson, class of 2006 of Ada, Ohio, combined her avid interest in math with the study of peregrine falcons, the end result proved to be extremely successful.
Through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF-REU), Peterson engaged in intense research on the population control of peregrine falcons at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln last summer. The program allows students the opportunity to participate in in-depth research projects at different sites throughout the United States. Students selected for the highly competitive program live at their host institution for an average of eight weeks and conduct research with a small group of faculty and students.
“Being a part of this program allowed me to experience an intense mathematical environment,” said Peterson, a mathematics major and computational science minor. “Not only was I able to expand my mathematical knowledge, but I developed more problem-solving skills and ways to apply this knowledge.”
Peterson worked with two undergraduate students with guidance from a math professor and a biology professor from UNL as well as a professor from the University of Exeter of the United Kingdom. The project, “Robustness and Transients Applied to the Peregrine Falcon Population,” focused on determining the number of peregrine falcons that could be removed from the wild population without causing the population to decline.
Since 1970, the peregrine falcon, the world’s fastest bird, has been listed as an endangered species as a result of environmental issues such as the use of the pesticide DDT. However, through fostering methods and hacking, the population has steadily increased, and the birds were removed from the Endangered Species List in 1999.
With her research partners, Peterson built a model using a population projection matrix. The goal of the project was to determine how many birds could be removed from the population to be used for the sport of falconry while ensuring a steady or growing population. The extensive project required the group to consider uncertainties in the data and determine sensitive variables in order to narrow its focus.
“I enjoy studying mathematics because I’m a very logical thinker,” she said. “I like analyzing situations and trying to find connections between different aspects of a problem.”
Peterson presented the findings from the project with her research partners at UNL during a sectional American Mathematical Society meeting, and later presented solo at the University of Dayton at an undergraduate Math Day. Recently she joined fellow partner Alyson Deines of Kansas State University to present again at the National Joint Mathematics Meeting in San Antonio, Texas, in January. Their work was honored with an award at the conference.
Since the NSF-REU program ended, the research effort has continued and additional questions have been applied relating to the problem. The group members correspond through e-mail, reviewing and commenting on the work.
“Being able to interact with other undergraduates who are passionate about the same subject material is an amazing experience,” Peterson said. “Meeting these people has helped motivate me in my goals and work.”
After fully immersing herself in the research, Peterson chose to expand the project as her senior honors thesis titled “Mathematical Modeling and Control of the Peregrine Falcon Population” in which she is applying Control Theory to make the model more environmentally sound. She intends to pursue her interest further in applied mathematics in graduate school this fall. Peterson has already been accepted into North Carolina State, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, UNL and Miami University of Ohio and is still waiting to hear from other institutions.
“I am looking forward to having the opportunity to get involved in more research projects where I can apply the knowledge that I am learning in the classroom both here and at graduate school as well as develop new skills from these projects,” Peterson said. “There is so much I have yet to learn.”
- Sarah Gearhart '06