(Go to Field Descriptions A-G)
When did human beings first begin using numbers? Where and when did the number “zero” emerge? Who first came up with the idea of doing algebra? Geometry? Calculus? What events and which other discoveries inspired these ideas? And how did they shape the world we live in? People who study the history of mathematics explore just that: the history of math and the different ways it has developed in different places. Historian of Mathematics Amir Alexander finds “the interconnections between mathematics and the broader world of culture, religion, art, and politics” fascinating.
The scabs that close cuts in our skin and help them heal, sneezing and itchiness from allergies, swelling and bruises are all signs of our immune system working to keep us well. Immunologists like Kent Teague study the ways the immune system keeps us healthy and how it acts when we are ill or under other types of stress. Immunologist Martha Zúñiga studies the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), looking at the different ways our immune systems and those of mice respond to transplants.
What apps do you have on your phone? Where did they come from? Internet applications developers help people turn their ideas into virtual realities. Government, social media, corporate, entertainment, and other organizations collect and share information and accomplish their goals online and in other computerized formats. Internet Applications Developer David Scheiner uses his computer programming, people, and math skills to help companies “use technologies to further their goals.” Thanks to his efforts, they are able to collect and organize the information they need to deliver the apps we (their clients) rely on.
When something goes wrong inside your body, it helps to be able to see the problem. Radiologists are doctors who use tools like ultrasound, x-rays, computed tomography (CT scans), position emission tomography (PET scans), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) to diagnose and treat disease and injuries. Interventional Radiologist and Bioengineer Derek West uses these tools to check his patients for cancer and uses nanotechnology to help cure them.
Mathematicians study numbers, patterns, systems, space, and change. Mathematics includes many fields, from cryptography (creating and breaking codes) to mathematical physics. Arithmetic Geometer Jordan Ellenberg explores the connections between number theory and geometry. Mathematician Edward Frenkel says mathematics can lead us to think about “questions of truth and beauty.” Topologist Emille Lawrence studies malleable (squishy and stretchable) shapes, exploring symmetry and braid groups.
Mechanical engineers design, build, and repair machines. Engineer Julia Lintern uses her degrees in mechanical engineering and applied math in her work at car and plane companies and as a fashion designer. Mechanical Engineer Rachel Rothman and her team at Good Housekeeping test products from race cars to televisions to Halloween costumes, checking whether each one is safe and works the way it should.
Microbial Biologists like Sean Gibbons explore microbiomes in many places, from public bathrooms to the human body, in order to study the impact that microbes have on human health.
An animal’s nervous system uses chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate all sorts of information. How hot, cold, or sharp is that thing you’re touching and what should you do about that? What parts of your body hurt at any given time? How do you feel about that thing your friend just said? Your brain and spinal cord and the nerves running between them and the rest of your body help you answer questions like these.
Neurochemist Jill Venton, an Analytical Chemist, studies neurotransmitters like dopamine. When do our brains create more dopamine? How can we measure the chemicals present in a brain? Venton and her team of scientists use 3D printers and carbon nanotubes to explore the chemical changes in brains as animals deal with different situations, including diseases like Parkinson’s.
Most of the mass — most of the “stuff” — in the visible universe is made of tiny particles called quarks and gluons. We don’t yet fully understand these particles, found in the nucleus of an atom. Nuclear physicists explore their properties, which give us clues about the history of the universe and the Big Bang and also the movement and interactions of everything around us. Nuclear Physicist Renee Fatemi studies the spin of protons and the particles within them. Her work helps us understand the properties of ordinary matter and the fundamental particles within it.
Nutrition epidemiologists like Alison Gustafson, a registered dietitian, look at the ways the food we eat affects our health and physical activity. They study biology, nutrition, and biostatistics as well as epidemiology, which examines diseases and how they spread. And they help develop ways of improving the diets of large groups of people.
Ornithologists like Laura Gooch (trained as a Civil Engineer) study birds. Gooch helps collect data about the birds caught and released in Ohio. She also records the songs of birds that migrate over her home each night and shares information she gathers with the Macaulay Library, at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Physical chemists study energy, molecular structures, and other behaviors and characteristics of matter on a tiny scale. Their work has many applications, from medical technology to energy storage, air conditioning, refrigeration, and heat. “Physical chemistry is a wonderful sort of union of physics and chemistry,” says Physical Chemist Barbara Hopf Offenhartz. She studied the structure and behavior of molecules of vitamin B12 and hemoglobin, both of which play key roles in respiration (the system that turns oxygen and sugar into the energy that helps your body stay healthy). The work Offenhartz did helped produce today’s sophisticated instruments for using light to measure the amount of oxygen in a person’s blood. Peter O’Donnell Offenhartz (married to Barbara) used his expertise in physical chemistry to investigate ways of improving different forms of alternative energy including solar and geothermal power. He worked with various kinds of batteries, used computers to explore the structure of complicated molecules, and helps solve his neighbors’ communication and technology problems.
Physical Oceanographers study the physical aspects of the Earth’s oceans (water movement, heat content, sound and light propagation). Emmanuel Boss looks at the ways light and sound interact with ocean water to infer the quantity and characteristics of material (algae, plankton, sediments, etc.) contained in the oceans over time.
Physicists ask questions about matter (from tiny particles to the entire universe and its galaxies), energy, and the interactions between them. They run experiments and observe the ways things behave in order to find answers. The information physicists discover is used to build and power machines and to understand the ways natural materials (as well as the ones we make) behave here on Earth and in outer space. Physicist-turned-Diplomat Nicholas Carrera studied halide crystals (used in photography and medical technology) and flew a plane through clouds to help figure out whether crystals like those he had worked with could “seed” clouds and produce rain. After Nuclear Physicist Robert Rochlin invited Carrera to join the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), Carrera examined seismic stations which measured the earthquake-like effects produced at nuclear test sites around the world. He is proud to say that thanks to the work of the ACDA and other diplomatic efforts, “the major nuclear-weapon states are no longer conducting nuclear explosions.”
Physiological ecology is a combination of physiology (the systems within organisms) and ecology (the relationships between organisms and the environment). Physiological ecologists like Manuel Lerdau study the ways plants and soils change in response to their environments.
Theoretical astrophysicists study the laws of nature in space, using these discoveries to help us understand how the same laws work on our planet. Did you know that helium was discovered in the Sun before it was identified here on Earth? Theoretical astrophysics helps us learn how stars shine, where they’re located, what orbits them, and how they come to exist. Scott Tremaine, of the Institute for Advanced Study, uses math and physics to find planets and explore black holes.
Your nervous system helps your brain communicate with the rest of your body. Neuroscience is the study of the brain and the rest of the nervous system (including the spinal cord and the large network of nerve cells — neurons — that travel through most animals’ bodies). Theoretical neuroscientists like Brian DePasquale use computers and mathematics, as well as the results of experiments done by biologists, to improve our understanding of neuroscience.
Software architects like Erik Antelman, a software engineer, design large-scale systems of software. For instance, a social network like Facebook might have parts on a phone, other parts on computers, and others on a server. Each of those parts of a system has many layers behind it. Software architects work with all of these parts and their layers, helping build and maintain the system as a whole.
Software engineers create instructions for computers, making them do something entertaining (like a game) or useful (like an application that helps students and professionals get their work done). Their knowledge of engineering, computer science, and mathematical analysis helps them design, develop, and maintain software. Software Engineer Malik Coates develops programs to help users explore the universe, watch animated movies like How to Train Your Dragon 2, and play games. Software Engineer Erik Antelman, a software architect, works on programs that scan social media for hints of new outbreaks of disease and helps design operating systems for NASA rockets.
Spacecraft Systems Engineers like Paul Mirel design, build, and operate satellites that orbit the Earth and instruments carried high into the upper atmosphere on balloons and short-range rockets.
What are stars and their atmospheres made of? How do they move? How do they change over time? And what can we learn about the planets that orbit them? Stellar astrophysicists explore answers to questions like these. Lucianne Walkowicz studies the stars of our Milky Way galaxy and helps search for signs of life in the universe.
Dietitians study human nutrition and advise people on healthy ways to eat. Nutrition Epidemiologist Alison Gustafson explores how the places people shop for food affect the choices they make for themselves and their families.
Topologists study shapes of different dimensions. Think of the shapes they study as malleable (squishy and stretchable, like clay). To a topologist, a solid triangle and a solid square are the same sort of two-dimensional shape (one with no holes in it). A shape that looks similar to a donut is called a torus. Some topologists study knots, which helps chemists model and understand the way molecules behave. Topology is also useful for scientists interested in the shapes DNA forms. Strands of genetic material tend to wrap around themselves … to tie themselves in knots. Mathematician Emille Lawrence, a topologist, studied braid groups and, more recently, has worked with spatial graphs, exploring the different ways one can position a graph in space.
Virtual reality (VR) blocks a person’s experience of the real physical world around them. Imagine wearing a blindfold that also covers your ears and treats you to sights, sounds, and experiences created by technicians, designers, software, and hardware. Virtual Experience Designer Matthew Brennan creates virtual reality adventures that allow people to see art in three dimensions. He travels to places like Rome and Paris to photograph museum pieces, churches, and town halls and then creates VR adventures that allow other people to see the art he photographed in three dimensions, as though they’re standing next to it and walking around it.
Water Resource Engineers like Cynthia Clark make sure that we all have enough water to drink, that farmers and other professionals have all the water they need, and that our water is clean and safe. They study the ways water moves through natural and human-made places where it is stored, from snow and ice on mountain tops to rivers, canals, and wells.
How are atoms arranged within molecules? X-ray crystallographers like Haroon Malak shoot x-rays into crystals to figure out how their atoms are arranged. X-ray crystallography is a widely known application which helps scientists figure out the spacial orientation of molecules in different substances. This tool is applicable to many types of research and industries including pharmacology and confectionery production.
Zookeepers take care of their animals by acting as nutritionists, behavioral specialists, and, of course, zoologists. They have to know how to keep their animals well-fed, happy, and healthy. Director of Animal Resources and Zoologist Anne Knapp is in charge of the nutritional needs of hundreds of animals at Zoo New England, which runs the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston and the Stone Zoo in Stoneham, Massachusetts. She calculates the amount of food that each animal needs, develops enrichment plans to help the animals fulfill their needs at the zoo, and makes plans for safe rescues for any animal that escapes.
Zoologists are biologists who study animals. They learn about those animals and their ecosystems by observing them under natural conditions and also by studying them in laboratories. Zoologist John Hoogland studies wild prairie dogs in the grasslands of western North America. Says Behavioral Ecologist Hoogland, the work of zoologists “contributes to our understanding of why animals do what they do.” His work with prairie dogs “has implications for other social animals, including humans.” Zookeeper Anne Knapp studies and helps protect the health of hundreds of animals at Zoo New England. She also observes their behavior and helps improve and maintain their diets and the enclosures where they live.
(Go to Field Descriptions A-G)