Finding the Zero and Other Award-winning Science Student Research


By rederiving a mathematical method developed by Isaac Newton, math major Karl Beutner not only made it easier and faster to find the zero root of polynomials, he also managed to win the highest honor at the prestigious Sigma Xi student research conference in Seattle in early November.

Judges rated Beutner's presentation as "superior," which means it could be published research. Presentations by the other six SMC science and math majors who competed were judged "excellent," the second-highest recognition. Judd Case, SMC's Dean of Science, called it an "unprecedented level of academic acclaim for our students."

"The faculty and staff now have come to realize that we do have a really good science program, and we're now seeing the tangible rewards," Case said. "It was as incredible as it would be for the basketball team to go into the NCAA and win the first round."

Kevin Bowen of Sigma Xi said it is very unusual for a small college to have seven students accepted for the competition, and that Saint Mary's took home the largest number of high-level ratings. The students' presentations were among 171 research presentations by students representing more than 100 institutions in North America, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, several UC campuses and many others.

"Icing on the Cake"

Beutner, a 22-year-old senior who changed his major four times before deciding on math, is still reeling from the recognition. He's not exactly sure what the award means, but said the conference experience was terrific for the whole SMC team. They met students and professors from around the country, learned about graduate schools and had dinner at the top of the Space Needle.

"We had a great time," he said. "It's the icing on the cake when you get an award out of the thing."

Aaron Melman, a former SMC math professor who worked with Beutner during the summer research program, recalled that his student worked hard to improve the math skills he brought to Saint Mary's and threw himself into the research.

"What stood out when I taught him and worked with him in the summer was his natural curiosity and his ability to connect concepts from different areas," Melman said. "These are prime requirements for doing research. He also has an excellent sense of humor, which makes for a pleasant and relaxed work environment."

Melman said much of the work that Beutner did during the summer is not taught in any SMC courses, making his accomplishment even more noteworthy. The two hope to publish the work.

"Excellent" Presentations

The SMC students whose presentations were recognized as "excellent" are: Barry Amos (Physics), Ashley Martin (Biology), Annie Regan (Health Science), Scott Rodriquez (Chemistry), Tom Scarry (Physics), and Steve Schluchter (Math).

Schluchter received an "excellent" award last year at the Sigma Xi symposium in Montreal. He credited SMC professors for his back-to-back awards.

"I feel great knowing that SMC can compete with any other school out there when it comes to undergraduate level research," Schluchter said.

The Seminar Connection

Case believes the Collegiate Seminar experience that all students go through at SMC helps the science and math students with the research competitions because judges look at how the work fits into the bigger picture, and students must be able to communicate effectively.

"They've had lots of opportunities to state an argument and defend an argument," Case said. "Part of science is the doing, and the other part is making it accessible to others."

Beutner went away from the competition not just with an award and an invitation to join Sigma Xi, but also with new possibilities for graduate schools. He is following the advice of his father, Dr. Karl Beutner Jr., a 1971 Saint Mary's graduate, who always urged him to keep his options open. Beutner, who will graduate with a master's degree in math and minors in physics and pre-med, wants to get an M.D. and a Ph.D and is thinking of becoming a research scientist. But he also expresses interest in aeronautical engineering and the interface between math and physics.

Before starting the summer research program, he didn't know what to expect, much less that he'd end up with an award and a publishable work.

"I had no idea what math research was," he said. "I sat in a room all day long and worked on the computer and thought it was great."
-- Erin Hallissy
Office of College Communications