YSU Math team vies, shines

YSU ranked sixth among more than 300 schools.
YOUNGSTOWN -- They worked for 10 to 12 hours each day for four days on the same math problem, and in the end, it paid off.
The trio of Youngstown State University seniors came up with a solution that ranked among the top 2 percent in the international online competition sponsored by the Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications.
Competing against hundreds of teams from around the globe, the trio earned one of just 16 "outstanding" awards.
"It's definitely the highlight of my four years here," said Sara Grove of Farmdale.
Grove and teammates Chris Jones of Hubbard and Joel Lepak of Sharon, Pa., received the problem at 8:01 p.m. on a Thursday and came up with a solution by 8 p.m. Monday -- 96 hours.
Staying focused
The group had a schedule to help them stay focused during each of those hours. (Yes, it included sleeping and lunch breaks, and even a pizza party.)
Their task was to design a "gamma knife" model to treat tumor cells in the brain, providing the fewest and most direct doses without hitting healthy brain tissue.
Prepared with weeks of solving practice problems, the group went to work.
"When you go to bed, you're thinking about the problem, you go to sleep thinking about it, you wake up thinking about it," Grove said.
"You neglect everything else," Jones added.
A rare situation
Dr. Angela Spalsbury, team coach and an assistant mathematics professor, said this is the only time in their undergraduate careers the students work on a real-world problem.
"They're much more confident, more mathematically mature," she said. "I see a big difference in what they're doing."
This year, more than 600 teams from 325 schools in 11 countries competed.
YSU had seven teams of three people each. Besides the "outstanding" award, YSU also earned three "honorable mention" awards, ranking the university sixth, edging out such institutions as Harvard University and the California Institute of Technology.
"We have, really truly, by any measure, some of the very best students in the country here," said Dr. Nathan P. Ritchey, professor and chairman of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics.
Another prize
Grove, Jones and Lepak also earned a Mathematics Association of America prize and will present their solution at an August meeting in Boulder, Colo.
All intend to pursue master's degrees in mathematics, but they believe the teamwork and hands-on skills they learned in the contest, and at YSU, will help them in the future.
"Going to YSU, you hear a lot of derogatory things," Grove said. "We've traveled all over the country in four years ... meeting students from what people say are the top schools in the United States.
"I've always felt very proud, and most people are very impressed with the things we're learning here."