Awtrey selected to head summer undergraduate research program for National Security Agency

The NSA grant will bring nine students selected from a national pool to Elon to work with Awtrey and participate in the Elon’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience.   

A.L. Hook Professor of Science and Mathematics Chad Awtrey  has been selected for an $83,000 National Security Agency grant that will fund a one-year summer undergraduate research experience at Elon for nine students selected from a national pool. 

Chad Awtrey,&nbsp;<span style=”font-size: 13.9997px;”>A.L. Hook Professor of Science and Mathematics</span>
With support from the NSA, these students will work on a team led by Awtrey and Sebastian Pauli, associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, during the coming summer and will participate in Elon’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program. The summer program will focus on computational research on local fields and Galois groups — areas of pure math theory that have been a research focus for Awtrey as he has mentored undergraduates.

The participating students come from a variety of backgrounds. They are from eight states, four are female, four come from liberal arts colleges, and three come from underrepresented populations.

Awtrey, an associate professor of mathematics and associate director of undergraduate research, has mentored more than 30 Elon student research projects, with his students going on to produce more than 20 publications in peer-reviewed journals and more than 70 presentations at regional and national conferences. Awtrey also works with Robin French ’15 and other faculty and students at Williams High School in Burlington, N.C., on research and other enrichment activities through a Mathematical Association of America grant.

Awtrey notes that this is Elon’s first federally-funded REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) grant and Elon’s first grant from the NSA. “We are excited about this opportunity, as it adds to the growth and quality of Elon’s Undergraduate Research Program in general and the SURE program in particular,” Awtrey said. “In the coming years, we will be looking to expand the number of federally-funded REU grants that Elon receives as well as the number of disciplines that receive such funding.”

The NSA grant-funded program has the dual goal of preparing undergraduates for careers in mathematics and other STEM fields while also generating new mathematical knowledge in the areas of local fields and Galois theory. Students will develop research skills including background mathematical knowledge as well as computer programming.

The actual projects the students will be exploring lie at the intersection of several areas of current mathematical research; namely, prime numbers and symmetries of mathematical equations. Prime numbers are the basic building blocks of all numbers, since every integer greater than one can be written as a product of prime numbers in essentially one way. Perhaps the most interesting application of prime numbers is to the field of cryptology (the art of data encryption and decryption). 

Similarly, the basic building blocks of mathematical equations are objects known as polynomials. Every polynomial exhibits symmetries, and studying these symmetries reveals many important arithmetic properties of the corresponding equations. 

The principal motivating questions the REU students will try to answer is the following: “Given a polynomial whose coefficients are sums of powers of a particular prime number, what are the symmetries of this polynomial?” In order to answer this question, the students will need to develop new mathematical theory as well as new mathematical algorithms for implementation in computer software programs. 

During the eight-week program, participating students will hone their research skills while also being exposed to career options in academia, business and industry, as well as what graduate school opportunities might exist. Students will be developing a research question, identifying pertinent literature, writing computer code, formulating conjectures, proving theorems and preparing a presentation of their work.

The program will include workshops, mentoring, community building and a capstone project to be presented at Elon’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experiences Poster Session in July.  Students and mentors will also submit all results for publication in peer-reviewed journals and make all computer programs freely available on the REU’s website.