A Hit in the Big Time

by minton on September 10, 2014

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Taylor Ferebee and Stephen Wolfram

Taylor Ferebee is a sophomore, double majoring in Physics and Mathematics. Her summer research at Wolfram Science Summer School (WSSS) is one of the best research experiences ever. Taylor designed a movie app in close consultation with Stephen Wolfram, the world famous inventor of Mathematica and author of the visionary manifesto A New Kind of Science. The app will reside in the Mathematica cloud. She is continuing her work with Wolfram during the school year and has plans to return to WSSS next summer.

Taylor found about WSSS while searching for summer research possibilities. She sent in her application, and was one of four Americans and two teenagers chosen. She quickly found herself working on preparatory homework problems – if you can call unsolved mathematical teasers “homework” – while reading A New Kind of Science and writing proposals for potential summer projects.

The on-site portion of WSSS was a month in Boston, attending lectures on mathematical logic, programming, game theory, image processing, and data scraping (the latter two tailored to her interests), collaborating with interns from around the world, and having one-on-one meetings with Stephen Wolfram (he calls this “ultimate professoring”) to determine her project. Her project ended up being an app that inputs critical information about movie marketing (e.g., genre, title, colors used in posters, season of release) and predicts the success of the movie. She used machine learning algorithms and sophisticated statistical procedures (it might be relevant here to note that this fall she is enrolled in our introductory statistics course) in developing her predictions. Her 2014-15 school year project with Wolfram is to develop software to enable the viewing of videos from the Wolfram cloud.

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Taylor, as she says, “struck gold” with her summer work: brainstorming with interesting and famous people (check), learning cutting-edge mathematics and programming techniques (check), becoming friends with bright young scientists and artists around the world (check), securing her future and landing the perfect job forever (well, I may have gotten carried away on that one, but she’s got a foot firmly in that door).

Taylor emphasizes how thoroughly all of this depended on her taking the time to find the opportunity and then apply. She also brought important assets to the table: previous research experience with NASA and an inquisitive mind that explores ideas just for fun. She describes Stephen Wolfram as “whimsical but logical” and applies the same phrase to the other members of WSSS.

“Whimsical but logical” could serve as a desired characteristic of all Roanoke College graduates. The whimsical part means combining computer science and criminal justice, or physics and Italian. You’re missing the point if you’re wondering what good such combinations could do for you. After all, an interest in mathematics and film worked out quite well for Taylor Ferebee.

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Taylor (upper left) in class at WSSS