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Fighting Pests with Math

Cara Sulyok uses optimal control theory (OCT) to design cost-effective and environmentally safe strategies to minimize plant damage.

Cara Sulyok 2015 didn’t love math as a middle school student. But one of her teachers saw Sulyok’s potential, applied innovative teaching techniques to spark her interest, and soon math was a passion. Now a rising senior, Sulyok wrestles with complex mathematical methods including, non-linear systems of differential equations, scramble competition approaches, sensitivity analysis, Pontryagin’s Maximum Principle, computer simulations, and optimal control theory (OCT).

“OCT is a powerful mathematical tool used to make optimal decisions involving complex phenomena, such as in economics, medicine, and ecology,” says Sulyok. Presenting her summer fellows research with dozens of Ursinus students who were immersed in innovative study this summer is a highlight.

“I worked on research with Dr. Mohammed Yahdi, Chair and Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science,” says Sulyok. “The goal of the project is to mathematically provide a framework for designing cost-effective and environmentally safe strategies to minimize plant damage in agroecosystems with optimal biodiversity levels, while predicting outcomes for scenarios not covered by field experiments. The focus is on the use of polyculture as a farming technique and natural predators of the pests.”

Her work is a continuation of a mathematical project led by Yahdi and in conjunction with Dr. Cory Straub’s field experimentation. She is grateful to both professors for inviting her to work on the project.  At this stage, the goal for Sulyok and her mentors is to continue to mathematically develop optimal control strategies in order to design cost-effective and environmentally-safe strategies to minimize alfalfa damage from herbivore pests with optimal biodiversity levels.

The hard work has earned Sulyok recognition. She won the Undergraduate Student Research Competition (First Place) at the “Sixth International Symposium on Biomathematics and Ecology: Education and Research” that took place in Washington, DC. The conference attracts prominent scientists, worldwide, who are engaged in research and educational activities in biomathematics, biology and ecology. Results from her research with Dr. Yahdi were recently published at peer-reviewed professional journals “Letters in Biomathematics” and “Proceedings of the International Symposium on Biomathematics and Ecology.”

“Cara has the commitment, talent and mathematical sophistication required nowadays to excel working on complex research projects that integrate various fields,” says Professor Yahdi. “She has a great dedication to a career involving research in applied mathematics and she will continue her research through her senior year, fostering her skills and presenting at national conferences. She’s exactly the kind of deserving student who can most benefit and contribute to the college’s promotion of the involvement of students in serious research.”

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