One thing that really boggles my mind is how quickly the world has changed. Yes, I remember when computers were slowly becoming the norm in the home and at schools. In school, we had designated times when we could go to the computer lab and learn how to type (thanks, Mavis Beacon), play with Logo programming (the cute little turtle you bossed around by telling it how to move around the screen), and then try to traverse the US in a wagon trying not to die from dysentery (we miss you, Oregon Trail).

But, my, how things have changed! No longer do we have to deal with floppy disks or green code-like text on a black screen. Instead, we tend to be faced with TOO much! Different sites fighting for our attention, people sharing their lives on social media, online shopping, and more – and all of these things contribute to the vast collection of data (of BIG data) that we don’t quite know what to do with. And, yet, some of these sites (you have to dig around to find them, sometimes) focus on teaching ANYONE how to become more self-motivated, how to work with big data, and how to still be creative and inventive in a world where knowledge is just a click away.

Kaggle is one such site – and it’s a site I hadn’t heard of until recently, from a student! Kaggle advertises itself as “the home of data science and machine learning” and “helps you learn, work, and play.” This Roanoke College student, Michael Johnson, is a junior Spanish and Math major. He says,

“Kaggle was kind of an accidental discovery for me. I was in STAT 302 [(Statistical Methods)] and we were being taught how to use R [(statistical software)] alongside the normal material. I had never really done any programming before, so I knew the only way I was going to learn it was to sit down with it and figure it out. I stumbled upon Kaggle, searching for datasets to use with R and kind of got to see how everyone else was using it to solve these complex, layered, and sometimes vague/open-ended problems.”

Accidental discoveries for the win!! Michael learned that Kaggle hosts competitions – as of today there are 17 active competitions, some of which offer monetary prizes! One that caught Michael’s eye was focused on using housing data from Zillow to predict home sale prices using more advanced regression techniques. Besides the main competition, there was also a more focused competition in which Kaggle would award $500 to authors of quality kernels (aka scripts). Noting that the current submissions didn’t seem all that involved, Michael thought that he could write something as good or better.

“I didn’t really expect to win, but I figured I had a higher chance attempting the $500 version than entering the main competition and squaring off with grad students and people who had PhD’s in stats/machine learning/etc. The dataset was massive, so I decided to scale it back to something that I could understand a bit more by focusing only on data from Virginia from 2010 onwards (the data pre-2010 was sparse). First, I demonstrated how to plot time-series data using a package called ggplot as well as how to apply a theme to the plots. Then I decided to try a very familiar, basic form of machine learning that I believed to be accessible to most people: linear regression. Essentially, I demonstrated that there was a linear relationship between the number of days a home spent on Zillow and its median sold price.”

“From that, we are able to make predictions on a home’s value using the regression line. Since it was simple linear regression, it was nowhere near the level of other posts and I posted it and kind of forgot about it. I was informed a few weeks later that my kernel was chosen as the winner for that week, and I didn’t really believe it. But I was chosen! And the money went into my bank account so I can confirm it was not a scam.”

Congratulations, Michael! Just by trying to learn something new (how to program in R), he ended up using creativity and perseverance (and tools from his statistics courses) to analyze data and come up with a way to predict house sale prices! Want to see his script? Check it out here!

I asked Michael what his future goals might be, and he said,

“I never really knew what I wanted to do with my math degree until I found Kaggle and stumbled into the data science field. My plan right now is to build my skills in statistics and programming with the eventual goal of becoming a data scientist. Grad school may be on the horizon, which I had never really thought about before either.”

Michael, we will definitely be encouraging you to attend graduate school! We need minds like yours in the field of data science! I guess we should also say, thanks to Dr. Childers for utilizing R in statistics courses at Roanoke – for encouraging students who may have never seen programming before to use it in a context they may not have ever expected.

Could you ever have imagined a site like this would exist? It’s a wonderful opportunity for anyone to experiment with data and see what we can learn from it!

Congrats, again, Michael!


Who is Liam Lambert? –A Quantum Physicist’s ponderings

William ‘Liam’ Lambert has won a Goldwater scholarship, one of the most prestigious prizes awarded to students for their academic excellence and commitment to research in the STEM disciplines. He is one of 211 recipients out of 1248 nationwide applicants this year. So, who is Liam Lambert? An aspiring physicist or a mathematician or an engineer? So, as all things in the quantum world goes, it is not either /or for Liam, it is all of the above defining him.

A double major in physics and math, Liam is strongly motivated by engineering. He started his work in Dr. Rama Bala’s nanoscience lab as a freshmen. In nearly two years of his work in the field of nanoscience, Liam has worn many hats. As an experimentalist, he has synthesized and characterized nanocrystals of maghemite and hematite under various crystal growth conditions. As a physical scientist, he has studied the crystallographic and magnetic properties of the nanocatalysts, where he studied the differences between topotactical and rapid aggregation schemes in nanocrystal growth. As an engineer, he designed and built a magnetometer like instrument to map the magnetic hysteresis of his nanocatalysts. He traveled to Thessaloniki, Greece in September 2017 along with Dr. Bala, to present his research findings at Euromat 2017, an international materials research conference. Now, as an applied mathematics student and an aspiring aerospace engineer, he is learning how to create lightweight structures using 3D printing and applying graph theory to improve the efficiency of 3D printing process under the mentorship of Dr. Karin Saoub. Liam plans to map the aerodynamics of 3D printed wing surfaces at Coastal Carolina University this summer. He will be mentored by Dr. Erin Hackett, Assistant Professor, Coastal and Marine Systems Science, and an alumna of Roanoke College.

Each of these roles have stemmed from Liam’s innate curiosity for research, creative problem solving abilities and motivation to pursue applications based research.  Liam Lambert is a student-scholar, true to every word, and definitely worthy of the Goldwater Award. Congratulations, Liam!

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Hilarity and Pi-ety

by Roland Minton on March 26, 2018


Pi Day was served cold this year, with a la snow on the side. The unseasonably cold weather did not deter the Math Club from its celebration of 3/14 and various things mathematical. The Pi-athlon was run with teams of students solving mathematical puzzles for points, with the goal of gaining as close to 100 π = 314.15926 — points as possible. Dr. Chris Lee gave the Pi Day talk on Standard Deviations – Flawed Assumptions, Tortured Data, and Other Ways to Lie with Statistics.

Chris also had an important role in the annual pie-ing of professors. Collection jars were out for students, faculty, and staff to donate money in the name of the professor they would most like to see pied. To add an interesting twist, the professors with the most and least money get pied. Out of the seven good souls who agreed to be in the contest, the “winners” were Dr. Karin Saoub with $81.40 and Dr. Dar Jorgensen with $19.66. A total of $290 was raised for the West End Center in Roanoke. Chris Lee and Anil Shende, both past Pi Day honorees, delivered the pies to their destinations, in time for a nice spread in the  Roanoke Times (above).

My calculus class celebrated Pi Day with the following fun fact: π is the smallest possible value for pi. Here is what is meant by this bizarre statement. Define pi to be the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter. Both “circumference” and “diameter” depend on how we measure distance, and mathematicians have numerous ways of doing so. The value π = 3.1415926 — is what we get for pi using the usual distance formula. Other distance formulas produce larger values for pi.

For example, what is sometimes called the “taxicab metric” defines the difference between points (a,b) and (c,d) to be |a-c|+(b-d|. A cab going from (0,0) to (5,5) could not go directly to (5,5) if there were buildings in the way. It could drive 5 blocks east and then 5 blocks north, a total distance of 10 blocks (or, as shown, 1 block north, then 1 block east, and so on, for a different route of the same distance of 10 blocks). In this metric, a “circle” (the set of all points equidistant from the center, so the measurement method matters) is a diamond and the ratio of the circumference to diameter is 4.

The result that π is the smallest possible value for pi, published by Adler and Tanton in the March 2000 issue of College Mathematics Journal, shows that the pi we serve you in basic math classes is the best pi you will ever get!


Sacred and Ephemeral

March 14, 2018

Sacred geometry has a long history, including Plato’s Academy (“Let no one enter who is ignorant of geometry.”) and the design of Washington D.C. (see Nicholas Mann’s book) … and several conspiracy theory books and movies. For Floyd artist Carolyn Deck, sacred geometry is a source of inspiration. She discussed this and her Smoyer Gallery […]

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Behind the Folds

March 5, 2018

An interest in mathematics can lead to amazing new experiences. For Jan Minton and her HNRS 241: Math and Art class, the new experience was a conversation with an award-winning documentary maker*. The documentary in question, titled Between the Folds, is about the wonderful world of origami. Vanessa Gould followed a winding path to her […]

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175! MCSP Student Research Gallery

February 15, 2018

Roanoke College recently concluded its celebration of its 175th year in existence. Another 175th  milestone has just been reached in the MCSP Department: 175 student research displays on the second floor of Trexler! To be clear, the gallery on the second floor does not currently display all 175 frames, just the 100 or so most […]

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Maroon Academy

November 15, 2017

We are always delighted when we hear from alumni. A recent visit from Sarah Witt ’12 … excuse me, that would be Dr. Sarah Janse as Sarah just earned her Ph.D. in statistics from the University of Kentucky! We had a great visit with Sarah, her husband Zaan, and her parents. Sarah has already landed […]

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RC Home for Sports Analytics

September 21, 2017

Roanoke College hosted the Virginia Sports Analytics Meeting (VSAM) on Saturday 9/16 in the Cregger Center. VSAM is a direct offspring of Furman University’s Carolina Sports Analytics Meeting, which was the first regional sports analytics meeting in the country. Two important goals of the conferences are student involvement and the promotion of sports analytics. Five […]

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RC Students Present Statistics Work

September 21, 2017

David Moreau and Lexi Denning had a busy week. David is a junior Physics major from Connecticut and Lexi is a junior Mathematics major from Connecticut. Tuesday evening (9/12) David and Lexi were co-presenters at the MCSP Conversation Series. Then on Saturday they ran the registration table and presented posters at the Virginia Sports Analytics […]

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ECLIPSE 2017: RC Students Serve as Eclipse Ambassadors in Smoky Mountain National Park

August 24, 2017

An adventurous group of Roanoke students and guests, as well as two Roanoke physics professors (Matt Fleenor and Dan Robb) took a trip to western North Carolina for the weekend of Aug. 19-21, culminating in an observation of the eclipse within the path of totality.  The end goal was to serve as the science ambassadors […]

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