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FLC's featured scholar brings undergraduates a taste of rare mathematics research

Laura Scull, professor of Mathematics

Laura Scull headshot with math illustrations on pink backgroundFort Lewis College Mathematics is one of the smaller, more tightly knit programs on campus, which is exactly what Professor Laura Scull prefers. At FLC, Scull and her students are not only on a first-name basis but they're also collaborators and colleagues, working on world-class concepts.

“It’s so great to have a group of students that really want to learn and are willing to put in the time outside of classes,” says Scull. “They do it for the pure joy of discovery, and that’s why I came here to teach.”

Scull, who has a doctorate in Mathematics and more than a decade of published research, specializes in a highly unique, and difficult, area of mathematics focused on orbifolds, geometric figures that have associated symmetries and singularities that arise in both geometry and physics. At her estimate, Scull is one of only 50 people in the world researching orbifolds.

Graph theory, a common subject for budding mathematicians, is a fairly concrete structure consisting of connected vertices, like a network of points connected by lines. To make high-dimensional geometric ideas more accessible, Scull and and her colleague, Tien Chih from Montana State University- Billings, tested the idea of taking the concept of homotopy, or continuous deformation, and applying it to graphs.

“We managed to prove that it’s actually as simple of a process as moving one vertex of a graph around at a time,” Scull says. “This alternate way of presenting homotopy, which takes a vast background to even talk about, has provided a jumping off point for students to start their own research.”

Illustration of a geometric figure called an orbifold
Professor Laura Scull focuses her research on geometric figures called orbifolds.

Scull said the nature of research in the mathematics field is tricky since many discoveries were made hundreds of years ago. The work is intellectual, rather than experimental, so it’s hard to find mathematics research for undergraduates to participate in meaningful ways. However, Scull has transformed that space for her students.

“Finding research that is not trivial but still has a floor low enough for undergraduates to learn from has been a real challenge,” Scull says. “In the last ten years at FLC, developing this parallel research program that is accessible to students is what I’m most proud of.”

For her scholarly work and commitment to undergraduate research, Scull is this year’s Featured Scholar at FLC. In just the last two years, she has had four research publications appear in high-level journals and is currently working on several more, some of which have her students as co-authors.

Her nomination came from her colleagues in the Mathematics Department, a brilliant team Scull has been a part of since 2009.

“The award gives me the chance to represent the Mathematics Department and the work my whole team is doing with students,” Scull says. “We have undergraduate students trained well enough to do incredible things, and that’s the work of all of my colleagues.”

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