By Published: May 7, 2019

With math-contest results, graduate fellowship awards and a boost in rankings, the department celebrates a 'culture of excellence'

Students of applied mathematics at the University of Colorado Boulder have been raking in honors and awards lately, and the department itself is celebrating . 

Most recently, three CU Boulder teams of undergraduate students won the highest honors in an international mathematical modeling contest. Also this year, five graduate students won prestigious fellowships, and the department’s U.S. News and World Report ranking rose to 14th among its peers nationally.

One faculty member says the good news reflects “the culture of excellence across the entire unit, from the students to the faculty and staff.”

Math Modeling Contest


One of the winning mathematical-modeling teams: From left to right: Andrew Jeseritz, Vladimir Zhdanov, Scott Marin. Photos by Lynda Hoag.

Each year, the department sponsors undergraduate teams in the international Mathematical Contest in Modeling. This contest involves 99 hours of intensive mathematical modeling, which is the process of using visual mathematical aids like graphs, scatterplots, diagrams, equations, to represent real-world situations. Contestants then create a complete report of the assignment. 

This year, the department organized and coached 12 teams comprising 35 students from applied math and engineering. Of those teams, three earned the distinction of “outstanding” of the 36 teams that won, and the 25,370 that competed.

The “outstanding” teams all built a mathematical model using data from the National Forensic Data Laboratory Information System that tackled the problem of the opioid epidemic, including future severity and to determine where the epidemic may have originated. Teams were then asked to combine insights and results of their data analysis to suggest effective strategies for combatting this epidemic while using their models to test these strategies.

In total, CU Boulder has won more outstanding designations in this competition than any other university in the world, said Anne Dougherty, senior instructor and CU teaching professor. 

applied math contest winners

Another winning mathematical-modeling team: From left to right: Brendan Palmer, David Stearns, Aparajithan Venkateswaran. Courtesy photo.

This is a testament to our excellent students and exceptionally strong undergraduate programs,” she added.

Graduate Fellowships

Recently, five graduate students in applied mathematics won the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship. This program supports outstanding graduate students who show promise in their field of study. The criteria for selection are based on intellectual merit—the potential of the student to advance knowledge—and broader impacts—the potential of the student’s work to benefit society and create a broad, positive outcome. 

Graduate students in the applied mathematics department were awarded five of the 34 awarded fellowships across all subfields in applied mathematics, garnering 15 percent of all fellowships for the university. The department significantly outperformed prestigious peer institutions such as MIT, NYU, Brown and Cal Tech who all received two fellowships. 

applied math contest winners

The third "outstanding" mathematical-modeling team: From left to right: Ellen Considine, Suyog Soti, Emily Webb. Photos by Lynda Hoag.

“This fits in with a culture of excellence that we are continuing to develop and have a track record in,” said Mark Hoefer, the applied mathematics graduate program chair. “But this was a big spike, and I'm just so proud of the students and the program for all of this happening now.”

Additionally, an international applied mathematics grad student, though ineligible for the NSF fellowship, was awarded an American Association of University Women doctoral fellowship, bringing the total to six fellowship awards for applied mathematics graduate students.

Top Rankings

And the department has recently celebrated its recent U.S. News and World Report ranking as 14th in the nation for applied math graduate programs—the only CU Boulder program to move up in ranking into the top 15 this year. 

Hoefer attributed these departmental kudos to the drive of the students and to the support of the faculty. 

“We're on the move up, and all of this is something that we aim to continue to build upon.  I would say it’s a reflection of the culture of excellence across the entire unit, from the students to the faculty and staff.”