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Do the math: seven student and professor co-authored publications since 2013 is a solid figure.

Those have come from the “Mathematical Biology Research Group” at Emmanuel College, consisting of Mathematics Department Chair Ben Allen, Professor Yulia Dementieva, Associate Professor Christine Sample and their student researchers, who have focused the work on their specializations in mathematical applications of biology.

“I don’t know of any other small school that has a powerhouse mathematical bio team,” said Allen.

With the help of six Emmanuel students – current and recent graduates – they were published in PNAS Nexus at the end of March, an open access journal dedicated to publishing research across math and the sciences. The paper, titled “Nonlinear social evolution and the emergence of collective action,” explores the role of collectives – groups of organisms that work together towards survival or well-being – and how collectives’ actions are shaped by natural selection.

Dr. Allen, a mathematician who studies evolution, said the most recent publication is a testament to the quality of the department. “We’ve been able to keep up an equal level of research with colleagues at other venues. [It shows] the strength of our educational prowess and consistency in research.”

For the recent paper, the group worked to build a mathematical framework that represents collective behaviors and compares them with real-world examples. 

One such example are “sociable weavers,” a species of bird commonly found in South Africa. As a “collective” the birds build and maintain large communal nests that serve as apartment buildings, housing dozens of birds in each one and spanning generations, Allen explained. 

Projects like these that require many sets of hands for computation and problem solving have opened the door for Emmanuel students to get involved. Almost half of the math and biostatistics majors who have graduated in the past six years were able to participate in on campus research, according to Dr. Sample.

“Emmanuel’s small size offers an incredible opportunity for many of our students to work one-on-one with faculty. Students in our research group have gained valuable skills in collaboration and communication, while making important contributions to the field of mathematical biology."

Dr. Christine Sample

One of those students is Jacob Proulx ’26, a math major with a minor in statistics and data analytics, who said he loved the chance to live in Boston and do research last summer. While the experience was tied to his major, it also led to an opportunity to travel to San Francisco and present at the Joint Mathematics Meetings – the largest annual conference in the field. Proulx said this helped him work on his presenting skills, poster design and general organization.

He said his time as a student researcher will be an attractive addition to his resume. He now has an understanding of MATLAB – a digital programming platform for engineers and scientists– before even taking a beginner course, and has experience studying evolution, a topic he hopes to study in the future as a Data Analyst or Data Research Assistant.

“I’m hoping this research position will show that I am fascinated by mathematical models and eager to work with them. Rather than just a mere educational experience,” Proulx said, “the student research position offers you a hands-on advantage that will contribute to your larger career.”

Proulx is just one of the six Emmanuel students on this particular project who have seized the opportunity to get involved in research earlier in their college career than a lot of undergraduates.

“We have some really amazing students here,” said Allen, “they can take leadership roles here that are normally filled by graduate students or post doctorates elsewhere.”

James Donahue ’23 has seen firsthand how doing research like this as an undergrad can translate into post-graduation endeavors.

The former neuroscience and biostatistics major is currently a research assistant at The Orefice Lab, part of Mass General’s Department of Molecular Biology, and plans to continue that work for another year before applying to graduate school. 

Research opportunities like what he had at Emmanuel are an early foray into the niche but rapidly growing field of mathematical sciences.

“Organisms, neurons, genes [and more] can all be modeled mathematically, and having this knowledge will put you one step ahead of those who strictly have the biology or science background,” Donahue said, “I believe that this background will also make me stand out when I apply for PhD schools and doesn’t limit me to graduate studies only in science.”

Math experience – and being a “numbers person” - is always an asset, Allen added, but students leaving Emmanuel with a skillset that can apply mathematics to bio systems is a particularly unique and valuable asset to bring to a future employer or post-graduate opportunity.

For Teddy Kelly ’25, a double major in mathematics and economics, working on the recent publication helped him grow as a student and professional. With the one-on-one support from fellow student researchers and professors throughout the course of research, he feels he has a strong foundation to build upon throughout the rest of his Emmanuel career and beyond.

“I will apply this in the future by always asking for help when I don’t understand something, and by being there for others in their time of need. Knowing that we are never alone in our journey is reassuring and enables us to achieve our goals,” he said.