Presidential Doctoral Research Fellow Profile: Philadelphian Fellow Seeks to Integrate Mathematics and Ecology in Research

Erica Christensen Utah State University

Since graduating from Oberlin College in pure mathematics, USU Presidential Doctoral Research Fellow Erica Christensen has worked at Advanced Avionics, an engineering company whose main client is the Navy. At the time, she was also working toward earning a master’s degree in environmental science from Drexel University.

“My work was primarily with computer models simulating sonobuoys drifting in ocean currents,” she said. “In one particular project, my company collaborated with the Physical Ocean Science & Engineering department at the University of Delaware and we analyzed and improved the performance of an ocean current model that the university has developed.”

“I decided to come to USU because of its good reputation as a research institution, and because I found a faculty member I was really excited to work with.” She said one of the biggest challenges in this project was coming up with an appropriate metric to measure the success of the model. She was required to utilize programs and languages such as MATLAB and Python to manipulate and evaluate models. Her experience working with these tools has prepared her to answer her own research questions.

Christensen is interested in combining mathematical modeling to ecology for her future research. She heard about USU when she did a research on graduate programs that would be a good fit for her.

“I decided to come to USU because of its good reputation as a research institution, and because I found a faculty member I was really excited to work with,” she said. “I believe the PDRF program is a great opportunity for me to conduct my research.”

Prior to coming to USU, she worked on a project to track the population of sea turtles in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey. The project was in its sixth year of a proposed 20-year study. In addition, she also conducted another long-term sea turtles population study on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The purpose of this research was to monitor the status of the critically endangered population and promote education of sea turtle conservation.

“Scientific research isn’t like other jobs I’ve had, where at the beginning of a project you know more or less what the end point will be,” she said. “Trying to achieve a research goal is often like trying to hit a moving target, the questions are subject to change with every new piece of information absorbed at every step of the process.”

The Office of Research and Graduate Studies established the USU Presidential Doctoral Research Fellows (PDRF) program to highlight its best doctoral students. Representing the most elite students, this award is given to one student from each of USU’s research-intensive colleges and schools. The four-year award includes at least $20,000 plus tuition, as well as unmatched access to USU resources and assistance, from intensive grant-writing workshops to meet-and-greets with deans and administration.

To be eligible, students must be doctoral candidates, score above the 70th percentile on the GRE exam, and have a cumulative GPA greater than 3.5.