Students apply mathematical modeling to drug addiction and recovery in summer research program


The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) chose five sites across the United States for its inaugural summer SIAM-Simons Undergraduate Research Program in applied mathematics and computational science. George Mason University, and specifically the Department of Mathematical Sciences in the College of Science, was one of those sites.

four men work on math problems on a whiteboard
Mason professor Padhu Seshaiyer (second from left) and Mason PhD student Alonso Ogueda-Oliva (far right) work with SIAM-Simons program participants Diego Gonzalez and Adan Baca. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Office of University Branding

Mason Science mathematics professor Padmanabhan (Padhu) Seshaiyer served as program mentor with support from Mason mathematical PhD student Alonso Ogueda-Oliva. The two selected undergraduate students were Adan Baca from the University of Arizona and Diego Gonzalez of the University of La Verne in Fontana, California, who tackled how computational science might inform the road to recovery from drug addiction. 

For their six weeks at Mason, Baca and Gonzalez worked with their mentors to learned how to conduct scientific research and effectively communicate mathematics and computational science principles. The goal was for the students to gain an improved understanding of how their ongoing education can translate into a career in applied mathematics and computational science.

Working at Mason’s Fairfax Campus, the team researched drug addiction and built computational simulations to better understand pathways for recovery and patient detox journeys. Students also engaged with Mason College of Public Health Associate Professor Holly Matto, who shared important insights into addiction behavior that helped enhance the mathematical models, further demonstrating the importance of interdisciplinary research.

students do math on glass board
Undergraduates Adan Baca and Diego Gonzalez traveled to Mason for the SIAM-Simons research opportunity. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Office of University Branding

Baca was excited about the research opportunity the program provided. “For me, it was the internal motivation to do something with my major beyond just turning in my homework,” he said. “I could research something that interests me to create real and useful results to benefit someone beyond the grade on my transcript.”

Gonzalez started the program concerned about his ability to keep up. “But the very opposite to what I expected happened,” said Gonzalez. “This opportunity convinced me of the value of graduate school and that a welcoming, supportive mentor could definitely encourage me to succeed, which is very important in this environment.”

“This supported opportunity for the Mason MASTER (Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation for the grand challenges through innovative Training Education and Research) program created a special summer for me,” Seshaiyer said. “The two undergraduate students clearly blossomed over the six weeks—from not having done any research at all to really producing something that was quite substantial, involving modeling, analysis, and simulation that is publishable, meaningful, and impactful.”

Seshaiyer recently received the 2023 Council on Undergraduate Research’s (CUR) Mathematical, Computing and Statistical Sciences Advanced Career Mentor Award, an annual award which honors one faculty mentor nationwide for their success in mentoring undergraduate students in mathematics and computer science research.

The summer program ended with a research presentation to Mason faculty, students, SIAM representatives, and parents. 

“These students gained experience both in the abstract space as a foundation while also learning how to apply it to something that matters today—in this case right on the edge of pushing the boundaries of what we know and understand about addiction and recovery,” said Karen Bliss, SIAM senior manager of education and outreach. “To be at a place where they understand the model and make predictions is amazing.”

“This program demonstrated the value of strong mentorship to create the right foundation for success and that students who are curious about big societal problems can in fact learn how to apply mathematical principles and hone their research and modeling skills to solve them,” said College of Science dean Fernando Miralles Wilhelm. “We are very thankful to be selected in this impactful inaugural program from SIAM and The Simons Foundation and look forward to additional opportunities to participate.”

Other mentor sites selected this year were the Moffitt Cancer Center, Rice University, Youngstown State University, and Arizona State University. The applications for the next cycle of SIAM member mentors are open now. Application review will begin August 30, 2023, and the student participant application for summer 2024 will open in December 2023.