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UST Professor receives $277,000 NSF PRIMES Pair grant to enhance undergraduate research in mathematics

Dr. Mary Flagg Dr. Mary Flagg, associate professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of St. Thomas-Houston, received a two-year National Science Foundation (NSF) PRIMES PAIR: Partnering with AIM for Inclusive Research grant for $277,000. Flagg will serve as the principal investigator.

"Congratulations to Dr. Flagg," Dr. John Palasota, Dean of UST's Division of Natural Sciences, Engineering & Mathematics, said, "This outstanding achievement will enhance mathematics research at the University of St. Thomas and demonstrate the critical nature of the mathematical sciences to a functioning society." 

Grant Promotes Mathematical Research at Diverse Undergraduate Colleges & Universities

The NSF Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) Partnerships for Research Innovation in the Mathematical Sciences PRIMES program aims to enhance partnerships between minority-serving institutions and NSF-supported Mathematics Institutes. This project promotes research at undergraduate institutions, especially those that serve large numbers of students underrepresented in the mathematical sciences workforce nationally.

The Department of Education designates the University of St. Thomas-Houston as a Hispanic-serving institution. UST’s diverse demographics mirror the City of Houston's diversity. Currently, Houston is ranked the most diverse city in the nation.

The PRIMES Grant Opens Up a Partnership with AIM

This PRIMES grant allows Flagg to work with Co-Principal Investigator Dr. Leslie Hogben, at the American Institute of Mathematics. AIM, established in 1994, strives to broaden participation in the mathematical sciences at every level. Dr. Flagg will be an AIM Scholar-In-Residence at AIM on the campus of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California for the 2023-2024 school year as develops her own research.

Grant Supports Undergraduate Faculty Research

"I will work with AIM to support faculty research and research with undergraduate students at undergraduate institutions by enhancing the relatively new virtual AIM Research Communities program," Flagg said. "Part of my role is to co-organize an AIM Research Community so faculty may join collaborative research groups, solve problems and publish papers documenting these solutions."  

Flagg will also work with AIM and the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics (ICERM) to enhance the Research Experiences for Undergraduate Faculty (REUF) program. 

Grant Expands Undergraduate Research for Students

"This project will also directly expand research opportunities for undergraduate mathematics students at the University of St. Thomas," Flagg said, "and will produce substantial research at the intersection of graph theory and linear algebra.” 

Linear algebra is an essential tool in many mathematical computations, from modeling weather to machine learning. Graph theory studies the connections between objects from friends on Facebook to electrical nodes in the power grid. Dr. Flagg’s research started with the power domination problem, a graph-theory model of the challenge of modeling the power grid. More than a dozen UST undergraduates have participated in capstone projects in power domination and related topics in the last several years. The year focused on research at AIM will allow her to discover new open problems in graph theory and linear algebra that will increase opportunities for undergraduate mathematics projects in 2024 and beyond.

Flagg herself got her start in graph theory and linear algebra through the REUF program. Faculty participating in these programs bring research problems connected to their faculty research into their classrooms. 

Undergraduate Research Helps Prepare Students for Graduate School and the Workforce

Because more than half of undergraduate mathematics degrees are awarded by colleges and universities that do not have doctoral programs, it is vitally important that students at these institutions have this opportunity to benefit from participating in undergraduate research. The importance of undergraduate research in stimulating interest in and preparing students for graduate school in the mathematical sciences and the STEM workforce is now widely recognized.