Lehman math prof wins science grant

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Megan Owen made Lehman College history this spring.

The National Science Foundation awarded the associate math professor its Faculty Early Career Development grant worth $419,000. She is the first Lehman faculty member to receive the award.

The four-year grant provides opportunities for college instructors to mentor students and further research into their chosen field. It’s one of the foundation’s most prestigious honors, and it’s only given to young faculty members poised for a lifetime of leadership.

“I was excited to win the grant,” said Owen, who joined the faculty in 2014. “I didn’t know I was the first from Lehman to receive it, but that’s quite an honor.”

In her 15-page grant application, Owen outlined the creation of a program at Lehman offering students a high-quality research opportunity in an innovative new field of mathematics.

Owen pioneered the use of geometry to statistically analyze tree-shaped data, a field she calls “tree-space.” Usually, numerical data is organized and analyzed using the same statistical formulas taught in most high school math classes.

“There are well-established computational techniques when your data is numbers,” Owen said. “The problem is that not all data is numbers.”

Sometimes data is medical images of a respiratory system, in which two lungs branch off the trachea and into smaller and smaller airways. Sometimes it’s the evolutionary tree of a deadly virus.

“We tried to represent (tree-shaped data) just as numbers and do regular standard statistics with it,” Owen said. “But you lose a lot of information with those methods, so I developed ways to do statistics with the data staying in its tree shape.”

Tree-space has uses in medical imaging, genomics, molecular biology and epidemiology. Owen believes tree-space will be a valuable tool for determining how viruses evolve and spread. By examining how closely one strain of a virus like Ebola is related to older strains, scientists can determine the origin of a particular outbreak.

The educational component of the grant program will give science, technology, engineering and math majors from low-income and underrepresented groups opportunities to assist Owen in her research. Eight students will be selected from Bronx Community College and Lehman, both federally designated as Hispanic-serving institutions.

“This will give them real research experience that they can put on their resume,” Owen said. “And that will help them get a job.”

There are opportunities for upperclassmen to work as research assistants in Owen’s lab. Freshmen will be eligible for semester-long guided research positions conducting computational experiments, simulations and data analysis. Student researchers get hands-on experience and are paid a stipend.

Although she doubts the students will go into her specialized field of computational geometry, Owen said the experience will teach them to think about science and math differently.

“The whole idea is that you’re not using numerical data,” Owen said. “The experience will get students to start thinking of anything as data.”

Owen plans to begin hiring students this summer.

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