Solving Complex Problems Using Math

Undergraduate Student Researcher: Garrett Howe

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Garrett Howe had an interesting scenario playing out on the computer screen in front of him. There were two teams and a set of decisions to be made that could result in a big payoff for one of the teams – that is, if they adopted the right strategy.

His players were labeled “United States” and “Terrorists.” In this computer-based simulation, the Terrorists were attempting to detonate a nuclear device within an American city, while the United States was working hard to prevent the attack.

To examine the outlined scenario above, it took some critical thinking, programming more than 1,000 lines of code, applied math and an understanding of a class of game theory models called defender-attacker models, which are used to model terrorism problems.

And Howe had the right stuff to make it work.

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Since last July, Howe, a junior studying mechanical engineering and physics at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been participating in VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. By partnering with mentor Laura A. McLay, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Statistical Sciences & Operations Research, Howe has been able to experience research firsthand, and do the work of a researcher day in and day out.

Howe, with guidance from McLay, has been examining complex game theory models in the context of homeland security and nuclear terrorism to understand how to use limited counter-terrorism resources to protect against a nuclear attack that could be launched by intelligent, adaptive adversaries. This is part of a research project that focuses on how to effectively screen for nuclear material and prevent an attack.

“I had a chance to do my own research – come up with the problem and solve it by myself,” Howe said. “I did not know where my destination would be. But the experience cemented my decision to pursue research in the future.”

Howe’s summer experience allowed him to perform research and to hone a number of new skills. He said that his newfound knowledge will be invaluable as he moves on to graduate school and beyond.

“Students like Garrett are such a joy to have,” McLay said. “You can see that the wheels are always turning, he’s always getting ideas.”
“In general, it is important for students to engage in experiments, so that they can see that we don’t always have the answers, and that knowledge is always changing based on what we know,” she added.

One of the most important and rewarding elements of Howe’s experience has been the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., and Texas to represent VCU at conferences in the field. He has become accustomed to presenting the work to peers and professionals.

Last year, Howe and McLay attended the Department of Homeland Security Summit in Washington, D.C., where leaders from a number of different scientific fields met to discuss high-level issues in homeland security research. Howe was able to learn firsthand where the future of homeland security is headed. He plans to attend the summit again this year.

Howe hopes to eventually explore the field of materials science through nanotechnology research. Ultimately, he’d like to break into cancer research where he can use computers to examine the structure of viruses in order to develop possible new cancer therapies.

“Exposure to research during the undergraduate years really helps students determine what they want to do the rest of their life,” McLay said. “They can see what professors do ... As professors, we do more than just teach – we do a lot of research. Students are surprised at how much writing we do.”

“Garrett wants to do a post doctorate degree – so I was honored to provide him some guidance ... He’s going places,” she said.