Charley LaFayette’19 Earns Rare Pure Mathematics Undergraduate Research Award
It’s a rarefied field that doesn’t attract many adherents, and it’s rarer still for undergraduates in the pure mathematics field to have research opportunities. So it’s quite the achievement for second-year university student Charley LaFayette’19, who just won the Gee Poster Competition for excellence in scientific communication, at the California Institute of Technology.
For the competition, LaFayette presented her summer research project, for which she’d earned a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), considered one of the ‘crown jewels’ of Caltech. The weighty topic was “integers representable as sums of tetrahedral numbers,” and here is a link to a video of her presentation.
“This presentation would typically be done in person, but Caltech students aren't currently on campus,” says LaFayette, who also fielded questions from the judges about her work in number theory, specifically “Diophantine equations,” writing computer programs to search and analyse solutions, then prove the conclusions.
“We have had many Branksome Hall graduates go into STEM fields,” says her former higher level mathematics teacher Andrew Schroter. “But it is unique to see an alum actually doing research in pure mathematics as an undergraduate.”
LaFayette clearly has fun with this most cerebral of studies. “The main feature of my work was proving there are infinitely many ‘scooter numbers,’ a term I coined for integers that can be written as a sum of two positive tetrahedral numbers, in at least two distinct ways,” she says. “I called them ‘scooter numbers’ as an homage to the similar ‘taxicab numbers’ which inspired them, because I am known to ride a scooter to get around. Funny enough, I actually got my first scooter in high school to get to Branksome faster in the mornings.”
Branksome Hall faculty definitely broadened her horizons to consider potential research paths, says LaFayette, whose work is an inspiration to other girls considering science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
“My Grade 8 and 9 science teacher, Leslie Wood, encouraged me early on to push myself,” says LaFayette. “She was a phenomenal role model and having her as a teacher was pivotal in sending me in this direction. And Andrew Schroter first introduced me to proof writing and the beauty of mathematics. I wasn't even considering studying pure math in university prior to having him as a teacher.”
What’s LaFayette’s advice to current students? “Have confidence in yourself and seize opportunities whenever possible.”