This is a story about a young woman who finds herself in a dystopian society in the Capitol playing Ramsey Games in a battle for survival. Okay, that grossly overstates the case, but Natalie Wilkinson’s REU experience at the University of Maryland had more drama than most.
Natalie is a Computer Science and Mathematics double major who spent last summer working on what are called Ramsey games. These can be thought of as generalized Tic-Tac-Toe games. The playing board consists of some number of points, and players take turns connecting two points with a colored marker. The winner is the first to form a given cycle (e.g., a triangle) of a single color. One of the goals of the research is to identify the number of points needed for the player who goes first to be guaranteed a victory (remember that in Tic-Tac-Toe victories are unlikely).
Natalie’s work was part of Maryland’s NSF-funded Combinatorial Applied Algorithms Research (CAAR) program in Computer Science. Natalie was one of ten students chosen, with colleagues from Princeton, Columbia, Macalester and others. Her team of three was chosen as the outstanding research team and the research paper they produced has been submitted to a top journal.
So where is the drama? REUs can sometimes be disorganized. Natalie dormed with several members of the robotics REU at Maryland, who generally had a better experience. Somebody had decided in advance that the Ramsey game group would code in C, a language which only one of the team members knew. The one C programmer approached problems in a different way than his two partners, leaving Natalie to clean up his coding. The faculty leaders were of little help with programming and other issues, giving Natalie several reasons to be thankful for her Roanoke College CS professors.
Otherwise, the experience was positive. Weekend trips into DC, good food, (mostly) smart and enthusiastic colleagues to socialize and work with, and some good results overshadow the frustrations of organizational breakdowns. So, the story ends with our warrior beating the system.