Mathematics researcher Dr. Mohamed Ait Nouh builds confidence in underserved students by inviting them to collaborate with him on publishable projects.
Full-Time Lecturer of Mathematics,The University of Texas at El Paso
PhD, MS, and BS in Mathematics, MS in Mathematical Economics
Mathematics professor Dr. Mohamed Ait Nouh knows the power of pursuing your passion. After all, his dedication and consistency helped him win French national championships in both of his favorite pursuits—mathematics and running—before he graduated from college. In fact, in the summers, he staved off teenage boredom with a combination of both. “I used to like just running in the morning and coming back home, reading newspapers and doing math problems for my next grade as a morning relaxation,” he says. (For running fans, his fastest 5K was 14 minutes, 45 seconds, and he once beat an Algerian runner to win a 10K.)
Now a lecturer of mathematics at The University of Texas at El Paso, Nouh still strives for speed in running, while going for depth in mathematics through his many research projects. “I like to tackle research because it just makes me feel humble,” he says. “I love the challenge in research, looking for something beyond you. With research, there is always room for novelty and new, challenging problems, and I love that. This is the same feeling I have in running—I like challenging my friends and beating them in major running races, and if they beat me, then I try to improve and harden my training and get more education on how the body works. I am always learning.”
Known internationally for his papers and presentations on topics such as “Twisting of Composite Torus Knots,” Nouh hopes to help get students as excited about research as he is. So, beginning at the undergraduate level, Nouh encourages his students to undertake their own research projects and offers them opportunities to work alongside him. “I have been able to collaborate in research with some very bright undergraduate students,” he says. Below, he shares his top tips from these experiences.
“I really love researching, but sometimes it is good to give back to society, to the community, to kids. If you have a gift and you help students, it’s great. I don’t want to keep publishing myself; I want to give back.”
-Mohamed Ait Nouh, PhD
Mohamed Ait Nouh teaches a variety of courses at UTEP, including MATH 3323 Matrix Algebra; MATH 2300 Discrete Mathematics; MATH 2326 Differential Equations; MATH 1508 Precalculus; MATH 1411 Calculus I; and MATH 1312 Calculus II
Tips to get undergraduates interested in research
It is clear that Dr. Nouh, through his collaborative research projects, has been successful in sharing his passion for math research with a diverse group of students. Most of them are from marginalized groups and, after engaging in undergraduate research, they have told Nouh that they feel more confident and more positive about their futures in a STEM field. Several have changed their majors to math, one was accepted into MIT for grad school because he had some of his undergraduate work published there, and another is pursuing a research project at NASA as an aerospace engineer. “Sharing the success stories with my [current] students gives them hope and motivation to pursue their dreams and not to settle for less than what they deserve,” comments Nouh.
Here are the steps he takes to get these results.
1. Find the right student
Nouh is always on the lookout for students who might be interested in doing research with him. He has found that grades are not the best indicators of who will be suitable. Instead, he looks for students who listen in class, ask questions, and take suggestions. The best student researchers, he finds, are ones from whom “ideas spark.”
After identifying a potential researcher, Nouh assigns him or her extra-credit problems that go beyond what is being covered in class. Then, he watches to see if the student makes progress. He has found that if he gives a student an extra problem and they never come back, that student does not want to go further. On the other hand, students who do the research “just for the grade” are not right for it either.
In fact, he notes, “The best-fitting student for research is a student who does not [so much] ask questions [as] bring solutions…. After they get that A, the students who call back with a new solution to a research problem … are the ones I know for sure will be a great asset for research.” (Nouh adds that, unfortunately, engineering tends to siphon off many potentially excellent students, because it pays better than does pure mathematical research.)
2. Pick the right project
Nouh’s research is primarily in geometric topology and knot theory (see sidebar). Sometimes he will choose a related area that he wants to learn more about. However, he notes that it is more important to make sure that the problem matches the student’s interests and ability level. “You have to give a question that the student can make progress on,” he says. “If it is too hard, the student will never come back.”
Finally, he says the problem should be one that has never been solved. This way, the student’s research has the potential to be published in a reputable journal or presented at a conference.
3. Follow a scientific process
After identifying the right research project, Nouh shares his own research process with the student, explaining that it should be systematic and scientific in nature. “You have to be careful to start really slowly,” he adds; otherwise, the student may become overwhelmed or frustrated.
So Nouh begins by providing the student with some questions related to their research project, then schedules an hour-long, one-on-one meeting where they can share initial thoughts and ideas. Throughout the project, these meetings continue on a weekly basis to explore developments and identify next steps.
4. Help them get the word out
It can take Nouh and the student researcher four to six months to find a solution to a problem. When they succeed, Nouh guides the student in writing down the results in the form required for journal articles and conference presentations. Then, he helps them submit the work for consideration. He and his students have presented several times at the Undergraduate Knot Theory Conference at Denison University in Ohio, as well as at UTEP.
“It has benefits,” Nouh says. “Graduate schools really like to see if the student publishes. It helps them get into good schools—more research-oriented schools.”