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2014 SRE Program Participant Profile: Rebecca McDowell

R. McDowell photo.

Hometown: Knoxville, TN
School: Teacher at West High School
Major/Degrees and Year: King College 2010 (Bachelors), King College 2012 (Master); BS in Mathematics, BA in Bible/Religion, Master of Science Education 
SRE Mentors:  Dr. Xioapeng Zhao, Dr. Heather Finotti
SRE Research Project: Statistical techniques for predicting cardiac rhythm disorder

Why did you apply to the SRE program?
I have never had the opportunity, outside of teaching, to actually apply any of the math I learned while completing my undergraduate degree. This past year, I had the opportunity to teach AP Calculus and remembered how much I enjoyed learning and exploring topics in higher-level mathematics. As the year progressed, I also realized I did not have a lot of variety in my answers when my students inquired about various applications in mathematics. I applied to the SRE program to not only "use" some of what I learned in college, but also to hopefully return to the classroom with more opportunities (career, research, various fields, and applications) to take to my students.

How did you hear about the program?
I was a chaperone at "Math Day" at UT earlier in the year. Dr. Lenhart presented information about the program and NIMBios to the teachers in attendance.

For teachers, [the SRE] is an excellent time to recall some of those (potentially) rusty skills and stretch your brain a little.
– Rebecca McDowell, SRE participant

What is the purpose of your research?
The heart is one of the most important organs in the body, as it pumps blood to all other areas of the body. The typical heart has a regular beat pattern, but, sometimes, the heart becomes arrythmetic, which means it beats irregularly. Arrhythmias are typically preceded by an irregular pattern known as cardiac alternans. The purpose of our research is to come up with a model that predicts when alternans may occur.

What does the research ultimately accomplish? What contributions to science and/or humanity does the research ultimately make?
Cardiac alternans typically lead to arrhythmias, which often lead to sudden cardiac arrest. If a model is created that can predict cardiac alternans early enough, then it will be provide the patient with preventative measures and, hopefully, prevent cardiac arrhythmias, and, ultimately, sudden cardiac arrest.

Describe a typical day on the job.
Each day on the job during the SRE program is a little bit different. The majority of my time has been divided relatively evenly between reading and researching independently, discussing the research with my group members and mentors, and collaborating with my group members on tackling the research at hand. It is very often a cyclical process: read and research to understand the background of the problem, discuss the research with other members to ensure full understanding, and then see how far we can get without the help of our mentors. We then report back to our mentors on our progress and then may return to look at previous research or discussions to get back on track or move forward with the problem.

Tell us something about your field of study we would be surprised to know.
While it sounds very biology-related, most of the project has been math-heavy. Understanding the dynamics of the heart actually involved a lot of physics and chemistry, while developing a model to predict the presence of alternans has required some rigorous math.

Do you have an interesting "personal side" to your research experiences that will increase human interest in your story?

What were your favorite parts of the SRE program?
The people. I am always fascinated to find what other people are interested in and to hear them discuss their interests and passions. Each person in the SRE program has a very unique interest, educational background, and skill set to bring to the table.

What new experiences did you gain that have helped you today?
Understanding how inter-related the fields of math and science really are was eye-opening for me. Aside from physics, I do not think anyone ever told me that biology, statistics, and differential equations could all be grouped into one project.

What advice would you give someone who's interested in/curious about participating in the program?
Be willing to go back to the drawing board and don't be afraid to ask questions. If you are one of those people who has to understand every little detail and always get everything right, this would be an excellent learning experience for you, especially if you are interested in pursuing research. My mentors keep telling us that you are supposed to feel somewhat lost and confused during the research process - it's normal - but you have to be willing to keep asking questions, looking for answers, and accepting that maybe you found the wrong one the first time.

Would you recommend our program to others?
Yes, both to undergraduates and teachers. NIMBios has done an excellent job in offering undergraduates with more than a research experience to add to their resume. They have also gone out of their way to provide students with information regarding various graduate schools, graduate school applications, and fellowship/research opportunities. There is a lot to learn, in and out of the research field, through an SRE program. For teachers, it is an excellent time to recall some of those (potentially) rusty skills and stretch your brain a little. As a Calculus/higher-level math teacher, I also feel as though I am returning to the classroom equipped with lots of challenges and opportunities for my students.

What do you do outside of work (hobbies, sports, associations, activities)? 
I enjoy many different activities - long-distance running, hiking, reading, and baking are at the top of my list outside of work.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I hope to still be involved in education, but in a different capacity. My long term goal is to work with or develop a holistic intervention program (either in or out of the school system) targeting at-risk students, beginning in kindergarden, following them through the completion of high school. My journey to this goal is still very vague, but I am currently looking into doctoral programs focusing on urban system planning and/or urban education.


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