April 5, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

Joseph Rabinoff and Matthew Torres are two of Georgia Tech’s 2018 CTL/BP Junior Faculty Teaching Excellence Award winners. Jointly supported by the Center for Teaching and Learning and BP America, the award recognizes the excellent teaching and educational innovation that junior faculty bring to campus. 

JOSEPH RABINOFF: Helping both students and faculty
Joseph Rabinoff was recently promoted to associate professor in the School of Mathematics. Because many undergraduates take the fundamental mathematics courses he teaches, Rabinoff has had a broad impact on Georgia Tech undergraduates.

Students say Rabinoff makes mathematics relevant and engaging, especially the introductory classes he teaches. For his part, Rabinoff seeks to ensure that all students, whatever their majors, understand and even appreciate the material.

Rabinoff was heavily involved in developing the curriculum and course materials for Math 1553, Introduction to Linear Algebra. This is an engineering core course that is taken by thousands of Georgia Tech students every year. He created lecture slides, interactive demonstrations, and online homework problems. With colleague Dan Margalit, Rabinoff wrote a free online textbook for the course, “Interactive Linear Algebra.”

Beyond the classroom, Rabinoff spearheaded the creation of the School of Mathematics’ course repository and has been the main contributor to its infrastructure and content. The repository contains up-to-date curated materials that a new teacher can just pick up and use.

The students are the most exciting part about being at Georgia Tech, Rabinoff said in a 2016 Q&A. “Some students are extremely hard-working and talented. I derive a lot of pleasure from interactions in class and office hours,” he said.

In turn, students praise Rabinoff for his enthusiasm, engaging lectures, friendliness, accessibility, and, yes, his “super” “Rabinoffice” hours, which one students says “are fantastic during exam weeks.”

“It is an honor to be recognized with this award,” Rabinoff says. “The students I see every week in class and in office hours are great kids, and all of the effort is for them.  Pedagogy is special in this way: The reward is not abstract; it is visible every time I see in a student's face that a light went on in their head. I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to teach in a place like Georgia Tech.”

MATTHEW TORRES: Teaching life skills
Matthew Torres also was recently promoted to associate professor, in the School of Biological Sciences. Although he always knew he would be a scientists, he never thought about being a teacher. At Georgia Tech he has recognized that, “first and foremost,” he is a teacher.

Having embraced the role of an educator, his dedication is obvious to students and colleagues. Students regard him not only as an excellent teacher, but also as someone who believes in them and sees their potential. Students say Torres’s mentorship goes beyond biology: Torres helps them develop critical skills that will serve them throughout their lives – such as written and spoken scientific communication, self-reflection, and how to confront failure productively.

Colleagues say Torres is a natural teacher, taking every opportunity to teach and mentor students in Georgia Tech and beyond. He gives students personal attention and invests time and resources to ensure student learning. A colleague describes Torres as “dedicated, caring, thoughtful, and highly successful in both teaching and research.”

Torres regularly invites undergraduates to do research in his lab, participating in work to address chemical biology questions that Torres’s research seeks to answer. These undergraduates are listed as coauthors on publications. In running his lab and in his teaching, Torres instills open communications and mutual respect as values that advance everyone’s progress.

Community engagement is important to Torres. He has volunteered to mentor high school students from the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology. He routinely gives laboratory tours to local high schools focusing on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

“Winning this award is fantastic, but I’m also very lucky,” Torres says. “Lucky enough to have had wonderful students – undergraduate, graduate, and beyond – willing to join me on a journey in pursuit of greater understanding and scientific progress. Such a journey can’t happen because of a teacher alone – it takes bright, receptive, and brave students to help guide the way.”  

April 19, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

For the last 35 years, NSF has supported national institutes that organize the research in Mathematics. These Mathematical Sciences Institutes are comprised of eight U.S.-based institutes that receive funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent U.S. government agency that supports research and education in all non-medical fields of science and engineering.

https://mathinstitutes.org/

Every semester, each of these Institutes picks an important topic, and invites the top experts in these fields to come interact, give lectures, workshops, and to train postdocs. These semesters are very influential and set the direction of research nationally and internationally. 

In recent years, our collegues in the SoM have been selected as organizers of several of these institutes, confirming the global leadership of the School of Mathematics here at Georgia Tech in several important areas of Mathematics. 

Last year, Prof. P. Tetali and adjunct Prof. D. Randall were Co-PI's of a successful grant to organize an "Transdisciplinary Research Institute for Advancing Data Science" for the NSF. https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=1740776

In Fall '18, Prof. A. Fathi will be the lead organizer and Prof. R. de la Llave will be an organizer of a "jumbo" program on "Hamiltonian systems, from topology to applications through analysis" at MSRI. https://www.msri.org/programs/305

In Fall '18,  Prof. A. Leykin will be the organizer of a program in "Nonlinear Algebra" for ICERM.  https://icerm.brown.edu/programs/sp-f18/

In Spring '17,  Prof. M. Lacey was one of the lead organizers of a program in "Harmonic Analysis" at MSRI. https://www.msri.org/programs/300

In Fall '14, and again in Spring '15, Prof. P. Tetali was one of organizers of the program on "Discrete Structures: Analysis and Applications" at IMA. https://www.ima.umn.edu/2014-2015

April 19, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

Math PhD student Bhanu Kumar has been offered a NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship (NSTRF18) with Rafael de la Llave as principal investigator.  This highly prestigious fellowship provides selected students with financial support and gives them the opportunity to collaborate with researchers at NASA and other research laboratories.

May 3, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

By the time Libby Taylor graduated from Wheeler High School, she had already completed her freshman and sophomore years at Georgia Tech. Beginning as a junior may be daunting to some, but because the Marietta, Georgia, native already knew that she loves Tech, deciding to stay for two more years came easily. This untraditional path began during her sophomore year of high school, when she took calculus through Georgia Tech’s Distance Math program. The next year, she signed up as a full-time dual-enrolment student.

Wheeler’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) magnet program allowed Taylor to immerse herself in science and mathematics. Originally, she planned to major in chemistry, but once on campus she gravitated to mathematics.

Her extraordinary mathematical talents were recognized earlier this year by the Association for Women in Mathematics, which awarded Taylor the 2018 Alice T. Schafer Mathematics Prize. Now, only two years after high school, she’s graduating with a B.S. in Mathematics

What is the most important thing you learned at Georgia Tech?

The most important thing I learned at Georgia Tech is that professors do not bite. Seriously, most students think that professors are intimidating. In my experience, that has never been the case. All the professors I've interacted with have been incredibly nice people and have been more than willing to help with any questions I've had, including the really dumb questions.

One way that Georgia Tech surpassed my expectations was in how hard the students here work. People are very motivated to learn, and they're willing to put in a lot of work to get where they want to be.

"My most vivid memory is the time I solved my first research problem. I had been close to a solution for a couple of days, and when I finally put the pieces together, it was while I was out buying groceries!"  

What are your proudest achievements at Georgia Tech?

Probably winning the 2018 Alice T. Schafer prize. That prize was a great honor. It validated both the work I had put into my career and the contributions of the professors who advised me along the way.

Which professors or classes made a big impact on you?

In my senior year of high school, I took math courses from Matt Baker and Tom Trotter. Because of their mentorship, I discovered my love of mathematics and began my first research projects that same year. Their guidance throughout the past three years has been invaluable and has been a major component in my being accepted to graduate school at Stanford, which has always been one of my dream schools.

Although I have never taken a class from Christine Heitsch, she has given me a lot of good advice, both for professional development and for life in general.

Padma Srinivasan, who taught my algebraic number theory class, was a big factor in my decision to study number theory in graduate school. Her enthusiasm for number theory and arithmetic geometry have proved contagious, and she has been a great resource for mathematics, as well as a great friend.

What is your most vivid memory of Georgia Tech?

My most vivid memory is the time I solved my first research problem. I had been close to a solution for a couple of days, and when I finally put the pieces together, it was while I was out buying groceries!  

I didn't have a proper notebook to write the solution, so I pulled a pack of stickie notes out of my purse and wrote a proof on those. That stickie-note proof turned into my first paper.

How did Georgia Tech transform your life?

When I started at Georgia Tech, I didn't really know what I wanted to study; I was considering chemistry, physics, or economics. It was in my second year at Georgia Tech that I realized I loved mathematics, and I hit the ground running after that.

What unique learning activities did you undertake?

I did a study abroad in China the summer after my second year. It gave me a chance to see a part of the world that I would never have gotten to see so much of otherwise, and it threw me into an environment where I was forced to be uncomfortable.

I improved my Chinese language skills a lot by necessity, and I got a chance to navigate in a country with which I was entirely unfamiliar. Some of my favorite memories (and best stories!) from Georgia Tech came from that trip.

What advice would you give to incoming undergraduate students at Georgia Tech?

Go to your professors’ office hours!  Even if you aren't struggling in the class, go anyway to chat about course material. You’ll learn a lot from those conversations, and you will probably come away with a much deeper understanding of what’s being covered in class and why it’s important.

Where are you headed after graduation? How did your Georgia Tech education prepare you for this next step?

I am headed to Stanford to pursue my Ph.D. in Mathematics. Georgia Tech has prepared me very well for graduate school by giving me a chance to get research experience, take graduate courses, and present at conferences, all of which are crucial skills for graduate school.

May 14, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

Prof. Sung Ha Kang receives the 2018 Herman K Fulmer Faculty Teaching Award in the School of Mathematics at Georgia Teach. This award recognizes Prof. Kang’s exceptional work in teaching Differential Equations over the last decade. Essentially, every student who has taken Differential Equations over this period has been impacted by Professor Kang’s expertise on this course, through her work in the classroom, as well as on course content and format, mentorship of other instructors, and pedagogical outlook.

The establishment of the Herman K. Fulmer Faculty Teaching Fund Endowment for the School of Mathematics (SOM) is credited to the late Howard Woodham ( Georgia Tech alumnus, Engineering ’48), who created this award in memory of Professor Herman Fulmer, his former mathematics professor. Each year this award recognizes one of our faculty who exhibit genuine regard for undergraduate students during the first few years of their Engineering studies at Georgia Tech.

May 24, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

A new national project, which includes the Georgia Institute of Technology, aims to convey the benefits of physics’ age-old intertwining with math upon biology, a science historically less connected with it. The National Science Foundation and the Simons Foundation have launched four centers to do this, funded with $40 million, one of which is headquartered at Georgia Tech and will receive a quarter of the funding.

Article and graphics here

Founding Members of the Organization include:

  • Greg Bleckerman (GaTech SoM math)
  • Christine Heitsch (GaTech SoM math)
  • Natasha Jonoska (USF math)
  • Julie Mitchell (UW-Madison math)
  • Peter Bubenik (U. Florida math)
  • Elena Dimitrova (Clemson math)
  • Scott McKinley (Tulane math)
  • Dan Goldman (GaTech physics)
  • Francesca Storici (GaTech bio)
  • Annalise Paaby (GaTech bio)
  • Matt Torres (GaTech bio)
  • Hang Lu (GaTech biochem)
  • Melissa Kemp (GaTech bio-eng)
  • Christine Payne (GaTech mech-eng)

This article was edited from a story originally posted 5/24/2018 by Ben Brumfield. 

June 4, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

By Mallory Rosten, Student Communications Assistant, College of Sciences

Students major in the College of Sciences because they’re curious about the natural world. They want to know why things are the way they are. They want to solve problems, to explain the mysteries of the universe, and to use science and technology to better people’s lives.

At the end of the Spring 2018 semester, 11 of those students received awards for outstanding achievements.

“We take great pleasure in recognizing and nurturing the outstanding, well-rounded students in our care,” says College of Sciences Dean and Sutherland Chair Paul M. Goldbart. “They are the reason we are constantly striving to strengthen and diversify the educational experiences and research opportunities that we offer.”

“I cannot say a more heartfelt thank you to the benefactors of these awards and scholarships,” Goldbart says.  “Their generosity marvelously expands our ability to support deserving students and retain them in the College.”  

Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award

This award recognizes undergraduates who are committed to research. Ann Johnson, a biology major, and Calvin Runnels, a biochemistry major, are the 2018 recipients in the College of Sciences.

Johnson is passionate about changing global health and interested in engineering for the developing world. She has conducted research with Joe Brown,  in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, with Omer Inan, in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s so important to intersect an understanding of humanities and science in order to look at culture and how it impacts people,” Johnson says.

The intersection of science and people also fascinates Runnels. He conceived and implemented the Undergraduate Research Fair to connect labs with students. He tirelessly advocated for marginalized and LGBTQ students.

Runnels conducted research on the origins of protein folding in the lab of Loren Williams, in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. His work yielded a yet-unpublished manuscript about the nature of biopolymers of which he is the first author

Runnels graduated in May 2018 and is headed to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. According to one professor, Runnels is “a once-in-a-decade student” who displays empathy as well as a command of science.

Gretzinger Undergraduate Research Initiation Award

The award focuses on students just getting started in research. The award seeks to early involvement and broaden the recipient’s participation in research. Keith Creech, a biochemistry major, is the 2018 recipient. He will begin research with Robert Dickson, in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, in summer 2019.

Mehta Phingbodhipakkiya Memorial Scholarship

The scholarship honors the top junior in the College of Sciences. Sara Brockmeier is the 2018 recipient. Brockmeier majors in psychology with a business option.

Brockmeier conducts research in the joint lab of Phillip Ackerman and Ruth Kanfer, also called the PARK Lab, in the School of Psychology. She studies the influence of factors affecting workplace learning, behavior, and performance. She helped pilot a study of test-retest reliability aptitude tests used by the U.S. Navy.

Brockmeier hopes to apply her research to a career in industrial and organizational psychology.

Larry O’Hara Graduate Scholarship

The award recognizes outstanding graduate students. The 2018 recipients are Joel Mumma and Jennifer Pentz.

Joel Mumma, a psychology Ph.D. student, also hopes to use psychology to improve people’s lives. Winning this award, he’s doing a bit more than hoping. Mumma has written a paper that will save lives, according to his advisor, Frank Durso.

Mumma led the risk analyses of protocols that health care providers follow to protect themselves from dangerous pathogens, such as Ebola. The paper, in Clinical Infectious Diseases, is filled with “a number of nuanced and surprising findings that tell us a little more about the psychology of human error,” Durso says. Hospitals are already putting to the results to practice. This paper, Durso adds, is just the beginning for this “rising star.”

Jennifer Pentz is a biology Ph.D. student. Using yeast cells, she studies the origins of multicellularity with William Ratcliff, in the School of Biological Sciences. It was during her undergraduate research at the University of Minnesota that Pentz discovered an interest in ecological and evolutionary questions.

At Tech, Pentz co-authored a study finding that physical stress may have been critical in the rise of multicellular organisms from single cells. Her work with yeast brought her to the Atlanta Science Festival, where she demonstrated the “Science of Beer”.

A. Joyce Nickelson and John C. Sutherland Undergraduate Research Award

Daniel Gurevich is the 2018 winner. The award recognizes excellence at the interface of mathematics and physics.  

No stranger to solving real-world problems, Gurevich is interested in data analysis. An algorithm he developed has helped discover new mechanisms for ventricular fibrillation. This heart disorder is fatal within minutes if not treated.  He also wants to be able to predict when patients in intensive care units might crash based on their vital signs.

An author of two research papers, Gurevich is triple majoring in physics, mathematics, and industrial and systems engineering. This broad perspective gives him an edge. He says it helps him find patterns in data.

Perhaps his love for problem solving comes from chess. He started playing at age five, and now he’s an International Master.

Roger M. Wartell and Stephen E. Brossette Award for Multidisciplinary Studies in Biology, Physics, and Mathematics

Being able to study more than one field – and to synthesize them – is an extraordinary skill. This award recognizes students studying at the interface of physics or mathematics with biology.

Harsh V. Patel, a biology major and computer science minor, is the 2018 recipient of the award. A School of Biological Sciences student ambassador with a keen analytical mind, Patel conducted research with Patrick McGrath and Greg Gibson, in the School of Biological Sciences.

When he first started research, Patel hoped to revolutionize genotype-phenotype mapping using machine learning. His computer science background allowed him to apply machine learning and probabilistic models to biology studies.

Virginia C. and Herschel V. Clanton Jr. Scholarship

Deep curiosity about the foundations of life also drives Nancy Park, the 2018 recipient. The scholarship goes to a top pre-health junior in the College of Sciences. Park is majoring in biology with a minor in physiology and a pre-health designation.

Park is a Fast-Track to Research Scholar and the president of Student Hospital Connections. She conducts research with Terry Snell, in the School of Biological Sciences.

“She really enjoys experimentation and discovery, and is constantly thinking of ways to improve techniques,” Snell says of Park. In Snell’s lab, Park has studied the sequencing of DNA from various rotifers and the metal toxicity to Proales similis.

Cynthia L. Bossart and James Efron Scholarship

This award recognizes the top out-of-state junior in the College of Sciences. The 2018 recipient is Katherine Wei. The biology major and health and medical sciences minor hopes to be a dentist.

In Todd Streelman’s lab, Wei studies the cichlid fish genome to explore the divergence of behavioral genes. Wei has had an integral role in advancing the understanding the genetic mechanisms of sex determination, a mentor says.

According to another mentor, Wei “only seems to express excitement as she dives into- and solves- new challenges and always has a positive impact on her projects and those around her.”

Wei serves as vice president of membership of the Pre-Dental Society and Stamps Health Services ambassador.

Robert A. Pierotti Memorial Scholarship

When it comes to solving challenges, Libby Taylor excels. She’s the 2018 recipient of the scholarship, which recognizes a top graduating senior in the College of Sciences. Taylor has already won the Alice T. Schafer Mathematics Prize, a prestigious nationwide award.

One of Taylor’s first challenges was taking Georgia Tech classes while still in high school. As an undergraduate, she went on to take several graduate level classes.

Taylor conducted research in combinatorics, tropical geometry, matroid theory, and random graph theory. According to her professors, when she came upon a foreign concept, she learned it on her own. One professor is “amazed at her ability to quickly pick up sophisticated ideas.” Another looks “forward to seeing what Taylor’s future holds.”

June 4, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

By Mallory Rosten, Student Communications Assistant, College of Sciences

Students major in the College of Sciences because they’re curious about the natural world. They want to know why things are the way they are. They want to solve problems, to explain the mysteries of the universe, and to use science and technology to better people’s lives.

At the end of the Spring 2018 semester, 11 of those students received awards for outstanding achievements.

“We take great pleasure in recognizing and nurturing the outstanding, well-rounded students in our care,” says College of Sciences Dean and Sutherland Chair Paul M. Goldbart. “They are the reason we are constantly striving to strengthen and diversify the educational experiences and research opportunities that we offer.”

“I cannot say a more heartfelt thank you to the benefactors of these awards and scholarships,” Goldbart says.  “Their generosity marvelously expands our ability to support deserving students and retain them in the College.”  

Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award

This award recognizes undergraduates who are committed to research. Ann Johnson, a biology major, and Calvin Runnels, a biochemistry major, are the 2018 recipients in the College of Sciences.

Johnson is passionate about changing global health and interested in engineering for the developing world. She has conducted research with Joe Brown,  in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, with Omer Inan, in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s so important to intersect an understanding of humanities and science in order to look at culture and how it impacts people,” Johnson says.

The intersection of science and people also fascinates Runnels. He conceived and implemented the Undergraduate Research Fair to connect labs with students. He tirelessly advocated for marginalized and LGBTQ students.

Runnels conducted research on the origins of protein folding in the lab of Loren Williams, in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. His work yielded a yet-unpublished manuscript about the nature of biopolymers of which he is the first author

Runnels graduated in May 2018 and is headed to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. According to one professor, Runnels is “a once-in-a-decade student” who displays empathy as well as a command of science.

Gretzinger Undergraduate Research Initiation Award

The award focuses on students just getting started in research. The award seeks to early involvement and broaden the recipient’s participation in research. Keith Creech, a biochemistry major, is the 2018 recipient. He will begin research with Robert Dickson, in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, in summer 2019.

Mehta Phingbodhipakkiya Memorial Scholarship

The scholarship honors the top junior in the College of Sciences. Sara Brockmeier is the 2018 recipient. Brockmeier majors in psychology with a business option.

Brockmeier conducts research in the joint lab of Phillip Ackerman and Ruth Kanfer, also called the PARK Lab, in the School of Psychology. She studies the influence of factors affecting workplace learning, behavior, and performance. She helped pilot a study of test-retest reliability aptitude tests used by the U.S. Navy.

Brockmeier hopes to apply her research to a career in industrial and organizational psychology.

Larry O’Hara Graduate Scholarship

The award recognizes outstanding graduate students. The 2018 recipients are Joel Mumma and Jennifer Pentz.

Joel Mumma, a psychology Ph.D. student, also hopes to use psychology to improve people’s lives. Winning this award, he’s doing a bit more than hoping. Mumma has written a paper that will save lives, according to his advisor, Frank Durso.

Mumma led the risk analyses of protocols that health care providers follow to protect themselves from dangerous pathogens, such as Ebola. The paper, in Clinical Infectious Diseases, is filled with “a number of nuanced and surprising findings that tell us a little more about the psychology of human error,” Durso says. Hospitals are already putting to the results to practice. This paper, Durso adds, is just the beginning for this “rising star.”

Jennifer Pentz is a biology Ph.D. student. Using yeast cells, she studies the origins of multicellularity with William Ratcliff, in the School of Biological Sciences. It was during her undergraduate research at the University of Minnesota that Pentz discovered an interest in ecological and evolutionary questions.

At Tech, Pentz co-authored a study finding that physical stress may have been critical in the rise of multicellular organisms from single cells. Her work with yeast brought her to the Atlanta Science Festival, where she demonstrated the “Science of Beer”.

A. Joyce Nickelson and John C. Sutherland Undergraduate Research Award

Daniel Gurevich is the 2018 winner. The award recognizes excellence at the interface of mathematics and physics.  

No stranger to solving real-world problems, Gurevich is interested in data analysis. An algorithm he developed has helped discover new mechanisms for ventricular fibrillation. This heart disorder is fatal within minutes if not treated.  He also wants to be able to predict when patients in intensive care units might crash based on their vital signs.

An author of two research papers, Gurevich is triple majoring in physics, mathematics, and industrial and systems engineering. This broad perspective gives him an edge. He says it helps him find patterns in data.

Perhaps his love for problem solving comes from chess. He started playing at age five, and now he’s an International Master.

Roger M. Wartell and Stephen E. Brossette Award for Multidisciplinary Studies in Biology, Physics, and Mathematics

Being able to study more than one field – and to synthesize them – is an extraordinary skill. This award recognizes students studying at the interface of physics or mathematics with biology.

Harsh V. Patel, a biology major and computer science minor, is the 2018 recipient of the award. A School of Biological Sciences student ambassador with a keen analytical mind, Patel conducted research with Patrick McGrath and Greg Gibson, in the School of Biological Sciences.

When he first started research, Patel hoped to revolutionize genotype-phenotype mapping using machine learning. His computer science background allowed him to apply machine learning and probabilistic models to biology studies.

Virginia C. and Herschel V. Clanton Jr. Scholarship

Deep curiosity about the foundations of life also drives Nancy Park, the 2018 recipient. The scholarship goes to a top pre-health junior in the College of Sciences. Park is majoring in biology with a minor in physiology and a pre-health designation.

Park is a Fast-Track to Research Scholar and the president of Student Hospital Connections. She conducts research with Terry Snell, in the School of Biological Sciences.

“She really enjoys experimentation and discovery, and is constantly thinking of ways to improve techniques,” Snell says of Park. In Snell’s lab, Park has studied the sequencing of DNA from various rotifers and the metal toxicity to Proales similis.

Cynthia L. Bossart and James Efron Scholarship

This award recognizes the top out-of-state junior in the College of Sciences. The 2018 recipient is Katherine Wei. The biology major and health and medical sciences minor hopes to be a dentist.

In Todd Streelman’s lab, Wei studies the cichlid fish genome to explore the divergence of behavioral genes. Wei has had an integral role in advancing the understanding the genetic mechanisms of sex determination, a mentor says.

According to another mentor, Wei “only seems to express excitement as she dives into- and solves- new challenges and always has a positive impact on her projects and those around her.”

Wei serves as vice president of membership of the Pre-Dental Society and Stamps Health Services ambassador.

Robert A. Pierotti Memorial Scholarship

When it comes to solving challenges, Libby Taylor excels. She’s the 2018 recipient of the scholarship, which recognizes a top graduating senior in the College of Sciences. Taylor has already won the Alice T. Schafer Mathematics Prize, a prestigious nationwide award.

One of Taylor’s first challenges was taking Georgia Tech classes while still in high school. As an undergraduate, she went on to take several graduate level classes.

Taylor conducted research in combinatorics, tropical geometry, matroid theory, and random graph theory. According to her professors, when she came upon a foreign concept, she learned it on her own. One professor is “amazed at her ability to quickly pick up sophisticated ideas.” Another looks “forward to seeing what Taylor’s future holds.”

June 7, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

What does flying in a commercial airliner have in common with working at the office or relaxing at home? 

According to a new study, the answer is the microbiome – the community of bacteria found in homes, offices and aircraft cabins. Believed to be the first to comprehensively assess the microbiome of aircraft, the study found that the bacterial communities accompanying airline passengers at 30,000 feet have much in common with the bacterial communities surrounding people in their homes and offices.

Using advanced sequencing technology, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University studied the bacteria found on three components of an airliner cabin that are commonly touched by passengers: tray tables, seat belt buckles and the handles of lavatory doors. They swabbed those items before and after ten transcontinental flights and also sampled air in the rear of the cabin during flight. 

What they found was surprisingly unexciting.

“Airline passengers should not be frightened by sensational stories about germs on a plane,” said Vicki Stover Hertzberg, a professor in Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing and a co-author of the study. “They should recognize that microbes are everywhere and that an airplane is no better and no worse than an office building, a subway car, home or a classroom. These environments all have microbiomes that look like places occupied by people.”

The results of the FlyHealthy™ study were reported June 6, 2018, in the journal Microbial Ecology. In March, the researchers reported on a separate part of the study that examined potential routes for transmitting certain respiratory viruses – such as the flu – on commercial flights.

Given the unusual nature of an aircraft cabin, the researchers hadn’t known what to expect from their microbiome study. On transcontinental flights, passengers spend four or five hours in close proximity breathing a very dry mix of outdoor air and recycled cabin air that has been passed through special filters, similar to those found in operating rooms. 

“There were reasons to believe that the communities of bacteria in an aircraft cabin might be different from those in other parts of the built environment, so it surprised me that what we found was very similar to what other researchers have found in homes and offices,” said Howard Weiss, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Mathematics and the study’s corresponding author. “What we found was bacterial communities that were mostly derived from human skin, the human mouth – and some environmental bacteria.”

The sampling found significant variations from flight to flight, which is consistent with the differences other researchers have found among the cars of passenger trains, Weiss noted. Each aircraft seemed to have its own microbiome, but the researchers did not detect statistically significant differences between preflight and post-flight conditions on the flights studied.

“We identified a core airplane microbiome – the genera that were present in every sample we studied,” Weiss added. The core microbiome included genera Propionibacterium, Burkholderia, Staphylococcus, and Strepococcus (oralis).

Though the study revealed bacteria common to other parts of the built environment, Weiss still suggests travelers exercise reasonable caution. “I carry a bottle of hand sanitizer in my computer bag whenever I travel,” said Weiss. “It’s a good practice to wash or sanitize your hands, avoid touching your face, and get a flu shot ever year.”

This new information on the aircraft microbiome provides a baseline for further study, and could lead to improved techniques for maintaining healthy aircraft.

“The finding that airplanes have their own unique microbiome should not be totally surprising since we have been exploring the unique microbiome of everything from humans to spacecraft to salt ponds in Australia. The study does have important implications for industrial cleaning and sterilization standards for airplanes,” said Christopher Dupont, another co-author and an associate professor in the Microbial and Environmental Genomics Department at the J. Craig Venter Institute, which provided bioinformatics analysis of the study’s data.

The 229 samples obtained from the aircraft cabin testing were subjected to 16S rRNA sequencing, which was done at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Alabama. The small amount of genetic material captured on the swabs and air sampling limited the level of detail the testing could provide to identifying genera of bacteria, Weiss said. The extensive bioinformatics, or sequence analysis, was carried out at the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, Calif.  

In the March 19 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers reported on the results of another component of the FlyHealthy™ study that looked at potential transmission of respiratory viruses on aircraft. They found that an infectious passenger with influenza or other droplet-transmitted respiratory infection will most likely not transmit infection to passengers seated farther away than two seats laterally and one row in front or back on an aircraft. 

That portion of the study was designed to assess rates and routes of possible infectious disease transmission during flights, using a model that combines estimated infectivity and patterns of contact among aircraft passengers and crew members to determine likelihood of infection. FlyHealthy™ team members were assigned to monitor specific areas of the passenger cabin, developing information about contacts between passengers as they moved around.

Among next steps, the researchers would like to study the microbiome of airport areas, especially the departure lounges where passengers congregate before boarding. They would also like to study long-haul international flights in which passengers spend more time together – and are more likely to move about the cabin.

In addition to those already mentioned, the paper’s authors include Josh L. Espinoza and Karen Nelson of the J. Craig Venter Institute, Shawn Levy of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, and Sharon Norris of The Boeing Company.

This work was supported by contract 2001-041-1 between the Georgia Institute of Technology and The Boeing Company.

CITATION: Howard Weiss, et al., “The Airplane Cabin Microbiome,” (Microbial Ecology, 2018).  https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00248-018-1191-3

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Media Relations Contact: John Toon (404-894-6986) (jtoon@gatech.edu).

Writer: John Toon

June 11, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

Associate School of Math Professor Jen Hom has been selected to receive a 2018 College of Sciences Cullen-Peck Scholar Award in recognition of her innovative research. Additional information on the award and in the citation is included below.  Jen is in good company with past recipients of this award, including Anton Leykin and Sung Ha Kang.

Cullen-Peck Scholar Awards: These awards recognize innovative research led by College of Sciences faculty who are at the associate professor or advanced assistant professor level. They are made possible through the generosity of alumni couple Frank Cullen (BS ’73 Math, MS ’76 ISyE, PhD ’84 ISyE) and Libby Peck (BS ’75 Math, MS ’76 ISyE), who wish to recognize and support faculty development within the College of Sciences.

Associate Professor Jennifer Hom (School of Mathematics): Jen has made fundamental contributions to the study of knots and the development of powerful new tools in topology, in particular innovative contributions to Heegaard-Floer theory. She is a highly creative mathematician who has solved long standing problems and introduced influential new ideas to the community, clearly contributing to Georgia Tech’s role as a US center for geometry and topology.

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