Warhawk heads west for prestigious summer research experience

July 28, 2016

Written by Jeff Angileri   |  Photo by Craig Schreiner

Padgett, PaneruUW-Whitewater student Noah Padgett, left, and Assistant Professor Khyam Paneru of the mathematics department in class on Monday, April 18, 2016.

Noah Padgett is a Warhawk scholar who loves exploring numbers and uncovering the powerful potential of mathematics in society.

"Math always made sense to me. Even in the third grade it took me longer to use a calculator than to do the work in my head," Padgett said. "It's so cool what you can tell from numbers. My goal in my research is to make data simpler, and parse it down to come up with something meaningful to people."

The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater math and psychology major has presented at state and national conferences, and his work is already helping to make a difference in the community.

Using her connections with the Walworth County Department of Health and Human Services, Meg Waraczynski — one of Padgett's faculty mentors — got him involved in a project using statistics to test the efficacy of the county's foster care program.

"They wanted to see if new parent and family intervention techniques reduced the time kids were out of their home. This is important on many levels — longer care means more financial costs to the county and greater psychological costs to kids and their families," said Waraczynski, a professor of psychology at UW-Whitewater.

Padgett pored over the data, double checking the math and measurement scales, and composed his analysis.

"We found the new intervention program is doing really well in drastically reducing the number days in foster care from the 200s to the low hundreds," he said.

These kinds of experiences helped Padgett land a coveted national honor. He is spending the summer at Arizona State University's Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute. The two-month-long summer research experience for undergraduates is extremely selective — only a handful of students from across the country are invited to attend.

"He'll get to meet and network with really well-known mathematicians and take his knowledge to the next level," said Fe Evangelista, associate professor of mathematics. "He's so enthusiastic about learning and not afraid to take risks or to make mistakes."

Those kinds of skills are critical to succeeding in the field, said Khyam Paneru, assistant professor of mathematics.

"Noah loves to work with challenging problems and to ask questions that can be solved in multiple ways," he said. "It's fun to watch him think about a problem and see the lightbulb go on."

A Boone, North Carolina, native, Padgett hopes to get his Ph.D. and then work as a statistician for the U.S. government or a company like the College Board. Or maybe he'll go into teaching.

For now he's keeping his options open, and continuing to learn new things.

Padgett is already proposing a senior project that is so complex it will take no fewer than three faculty members to mentor him.

"I was really surprised when he came up with the idea," Paneru said. "It's an interdisciplinary project that involves statistics, abstract algebra and social and life sciences. What's exciting is that we'll be learning from one another."

Meanwhile, his mentors are enjoying helping him navigate the boundless world of mathematics.

"It's like watching someone discover a new band or sport - that's Noah with math and learning," Waraczynki said.

"We keep pushing him to see if he'll break," she joked. "He hasn't yet."