Graduate mentors provide undergrads with ‘any path to math’

The Directed Reading Program pairs undergraduates with graduate student mentors for advanced learning.

Airika Yee, was starting her senior year as a mathematical economics major when she got an email about the Directed Reading Program (DRP), a nationwide initiative that pairs math graduate and undergraduate students for a semester of independent research, culminating in a final presentation.

Four portraits of people, from left to right: Abigail Timmel, Mona Merling, George Wang, and Thomas Brazelton.
From left to right: Abigail Timmel; Mona Merling, assistant professor of mathematics; George Wang, doctoral candidate; and Thomas Brazelton, doctoral student. (Image: Omnia)

“I really wanted to take a course in topology, but it never fit my schedule,” Yee says. “I saw the DRP as a chance to learn about an area of mathematics I’d never explored. I’ve had great experiences with grad students as TAs, so I knew I would to learn a lot.”

Mona Merling, assistant professor of mathematics, knows how powerful the DRP can be for grad and undergrad students alike. She was a graduate student mentor in University of Chicago’s DRP and saw an opportunity to create a chapter at Penn in fall 2019. With support from the department and Dennis DeTurck, Robert A. Fox Leadership Professor and undergraduate chair of mathematics, as well as funding from the National Science Foundation, the program took off. She’s now the faculty advisor. But the real work, she says, is done by the mentors and graduate student organizers Thomas Brazelton and George Wang.

Brazelton and Wang recruit participants and match undergraduates to grad students who could help them learn more about the areas of math they want to pursue. From there, the mentor/mentee pairs create reading lists and schedule regular meetings to discuss texts and work on problems.

Reflecting on the graduate student interest, Brazelton says, “When you’re teaching a class, neither you nor the student has much freedom in choosing what you study. The DRP is a valuable experience because we get the freedom to explore and dive into a student’s interests and challenges.” 

As much as DRP is a resource for undergraduate students, Merling says it can also be valuable for graduate students as they progress in their careers. “I can feel the impact of the experience of mentoring undergraduates in the DRP on my growth as a mentor and advisor,” she explains. “I cherished the experience of learning along with my DRP students and watching them grow. It was a very formative experience.”

This story is by Lauren Rebecca Thacker. Read more at Omnia.