What They Learned: Mairin Fitzpatrick ‘19

The mathematics major and environmental studies minor uses mathematical tools to study honeybee populations.

When deciding on a topic for her thesis, mathematics major and environmental studies minor Mairin Fitzpatrick ‘19 knew that the modeling tools of mathematics could be fruitfully used to study any number of environmental issues. She just had to pick one.

She sharpened her search by emphasizing contemporary relevance and urgency, settling on an investigation of Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees. In her view, this decision split the difference between her criteria.

“Colony Collapse Disorder is currently both a huge environmental problem and a really interesting phenomenon,” she said. “There is very little research within the mathematical community on honeybees.” Because of this dearth of pre-existing studies, exploring Colony Collapse Disorder allowed her to develop new, mathematical perspectives on a pressing environmental issue.

She was also able to come up with a punny title: “Mathematically Modeling the Western Honeybee Population Over Time With Respect To Colony Collapse Disorder: A Senior Bee-this.”

Who was your thesis advisor? And how did they help you develop your thesis topic, conduct your research, and/or interpret your results?

My advisor was Professor of Mathematics and Statistics Rob Manning. From the beginning, Rob was extremely supportive of my decision to study honeybees and expressed a genuine interest in learning more about them in order to guide me in my research. He was great at asking questions that got me to think about the research in a different way and he was always full of suggestions as to how I could further my research every time I got stuck or felt like I hit a dead-end.

What did you learn from working on your thesis? What is your biggest takeaway from the project?

I learned to not always take academic papers at face value. I spent the entire year studying primarily one mathematical paper, and the first time I read it I kind of just blindly agreed with everything the authors said. But, every time I read the paper after that, and as I did my own research on honeybees, I only had more questions. I learned that it is important to be critical of academic papers and that no one source is perfect.

What are your plans for the future and does your thesis have anything to do helping to guide your future career path?

I am about to start a career in Operations Research where I will do some mathematical modeling and programming. This career path is, unfortunately, not bee-related, but working on this thesis did give me the opportunity to strengthen my programming skills and to work with a more complicated model that I wouldn’t have even seen in my regular elective courses. It was a valuable experience that I was able to discuss in my job interviews, and maybe I’ll have the opportunity to do math for the sake of bettering the environment again someday!

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.