Alyssa Marie Pampell: 26, Computational and Applied Mathematics
While women are, generally speaking, under-represented in graduate programs of mathematics, Southern Methodist University graduates a high percentage of women from their Ph.D. program in Computational and Applied Mathematics.
One such woman is Alyssa Pampell, who came to SMU in 2008 to work on a master’s degree in mathematics, but so enjoyed her studies she decided to continue on, working toward a Ph.D.
Alyssa, who hails from Pearland, Texas, a suburb of Houston, didn’t always have such lofty goals, though she did always excel at school. She attended Southwest University in Georgetown, Texas, for her undergraduate degree, majoring in mathematics and minoring in music. (Math and music both involve patterns, she points out.) Her life’s work, she originally thought, would be teaching math to high school students and she snared a job at Taylor High School in central Texas after completing her bachelor’s degree. “It was not quite what I expected,” she recalls. A lot of the students were only in her classes because they were required; some even said they “hated” math, and that was hard on Alyssa who loves numbers.
She reassessed and ended up at SMU’s Mathematics Department, which turned out to be a much better fit. One of the aspects of her program that made it such a good fit was that word “applied.” Alyssa’s thesis would be on something practical, some real-world project, that interested her.
”I like to think that I have a pretty good awareness of environmental issues,” says Alyssa. “Conservation, recycling, things like that, have always been important in my family. My sister got a degree in environmental studies, so it’s been kind of a theme in my family.”
She got the idea for her project while at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., in 200. “I actually picked my own project, which is not very common. Most people got on with an adviser who has a grant. I didn’t really want to go that route. I wanted to do something that would be meaningful to me. I wanted to do something that was environmental or geared toward climate change.”
Alyssa is working on a mathematical model of circulation of water in the Atlantic Ocean. The two key variables affecting flow are temperature and salinity, which affect the density of the water, which in turn drives the circulation, Alyssa explains. For example, near the equator, water is warm and has a high salt content. Those factors cause it to move northward, toward the north pole, where it starts to cool off. Colder water is denser, so it sinks, and flows back south, like a giant conveyor belt. These forces are already well known. Alyssa’s contribution will be to refine the ocean-flow model, looking at how changes in temperature and fresh water (rain) affect the model.
”The Atlantic is responsible for making the climate of Europe very moderate. My work will contribute to predicting how climate change in the ocean will affect Europe. That’s the hope,” says Alyssa.
Alyssa’s advisor is Dr. Alejandro Aceves, who has been very supportive of her thesis idea. She recently got another big vote of confidence in the form of a major scholarship. The PEO Sisterhood, a women’s professional organization that provides scholarships for women doing promising graduate-degree work, recently awarded Alyssa a $15,000 scholarship. The scholarship is considered a major honor.
Alyssa has completed all of her course work, including a class in fluid dynamics. This summer, she will be doing an internship at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which Dr. Aceves arranged for her. Alyssa hopes to collect her Ph.D. in 2013.