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Practical Math Problems Bring US, Foreign Students Together for Summer
"In physics-based animation, the objects need to look real and the details need to appear correctly according to scientific principles," explains Yacoubou Djima, one of 32 participants in RIPS 2008. (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

Practical Math Problems Bring US, Foreign Students Together for Summer

UCLA's Research in Industrial Projects for Students program invites undergraduates from around the country and the world to work on mathematical challenges with applications in biotech, information technology, filmmaking, and more.

By Kathleen Micham

It shows them how students in other countries are trained and how cultural differences impact the team environment.

THE NEXT TIME you see a spaceship land in an animated film by Pixar, watch the rocks, sand, and debris around it. If the scene looks realistic to you, that may be thanks to the work of a UCLA summer researcher from as far away as Benin, Hong Kong, or Slovakia.

UCLA's Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM) is hosting 32 undergraduates, including 11 from nine foreign countries, at a summer program that receives funds from the National Science Foundation and from companies such as the biotech giant Amgen, the computer security firm Symantec, and Pixar. The companies benefit directly from the work carried out in the program, known as Research in Industrial Projects for Students (RIPS).

"It's one of only a few math programs that accept international students in the U.S.," says Arunima Ray, a student from India who studies in upstate New York during the academic year and who has had success getting into U.S. biology research programs. Undergraduates in some NSF-backed summer research programs have to be U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

Eleven RIPS participants are from overseas.

Ismael Yacoubou Djima of Benin is part of the IPAM Pixar team that models events like explosions and crashes mathematically.

"In physics-based animation," explains Yacoubou Djima, "the objects need to look real and the details need to appear correctly according to scientific principles."

The IPAM Amgen team calculates mathematical models of hemoglobin deployment, while the Symantec team mines that company's database of antivirus software for solutions to fresh problems. A faculty member or a postdoc, from UCLA or occasionally another institution, advises each research group.

After many years' preparation in the classroom, the student participants say, a stint of applied research is a treat.

The international students live in Sproul Hall and eat in the dining halls. Predictably, perhaps, Anand Mistry of the United Kingdom finds the dining hall cuisine better than what he gets at home, and Fanny Dore of France finds it lacking. The entire group is impressed by the size and beauty of the UCLA campus.

Stacey Beggs, assistant director of IPAM and the program's coordinator, says that its internationalism is part of its success: "We find that the U.S. students who participate in RIPS really value the chance to work side-by-side with students from other countries. It shows them how students in other countries are trained and how cultural differences impact the team environment."

UCLA International Institute