Seeing the natural world through a mathematical lens

David Daro

“I see mathematics as the language in which the universe operates,” says senior David Darrow. “It’s a very cool way to understand how nature works.” Credit: Jake Belcher

Darrow’s introduction to mathematics research began at MIT when he was a high school student, through the MIT PRIMES Research Program for High School Students. Under the guidance of two mentors, he worked to devise a new algorithm to more accurately and efficiently simulate fluid motion in the cylinder. While the project was ultimately unsuccessful, computationally speaking, it stimulated his interest in the field — with failures included.

Early in his first year at MIT, Darrow conducted several research projects in everything from surface minimum theory to convex geometry. While some were successful, others were not. Among his biggest challenges, Darrow says, have been the failures — and inspiration for new research ideas.

“That’s one of the big things about math research: Sometimes it just fails and you can’t do anything about it. But if those things don’t fail, it wouldn’t be very interesting to study them in the first place,” he says.

In the spring of his junior year, Darrow worked alongside postdoc Daniel Alvarez Gavila to study the affective topology of symmetry domains. This was Darrow’s first project working alongside another person; His previous research experiences were more independent.

Darrow is currently studying protein folding with doctoral candidate George Stepaniants, using statistical engineering to study and compare the differences between the folds of these large and complex molecules. Using the indexed data, he hopes to find out whether certain proteins are related to and share their evolutionary past.

Darrow also discovered another passion during his time at MIT: language. Starting with German in his freshman year, he is now learning Russian and French and revisiting the Spanish he began studying in high school. His interest in these languages ​​is partly due to the fact that many of the subjects he is interested in were pioneered in languages ​​other than English. Thus, by learning languages ​​like German and Spanish, he can connect with more people in mathematics and learn from their research. He also understands that some experts feel more comfortable speaking in their native language, so they may miss valuable information – about math or many other subjects.

“There are a lot of people you can’t communicate with if you don’t speak the same language they do,” he says.

Darrow is also working on presenting his own research in other languages. For example, in the spring of his junior year, he gave a presentation on one of his research projects on convex geometry in Spanish at the Victor Neumann-Lara Symposium in Mexico. He has also submitted works to two French magazines in the hope that they will be published.

The pandemic has also increased Darrow’s appreciation for languages, as he sees the value of the Internet as an educational tool for online education. Using software like Duolingo and the MIT Open Courseware himself, he understands the far-reaching potential that easy-to-use platforms have to revolutionize learning, specifically in subjects like math and science.

“A lot of people in the US have language barriers, or partial language barriers, which makes traditional US education very difficult. If you are not 100 percent comfortable with English, learning English calculus is going to be much harder — without No fault on your part,” he says.

Darrow enjoys teaching in all subjects, seeing it as a way to enhance his love of teaching and learning. “I think education is a big part of the research process,” he says.

In graduate school, Darrow hopes to study how fluid dynamics relates to climate, looking at things like geophysical fluid flows and oceanographic modeling. He sees mathematics and fluid dynamics specifically, as a way to help better predict and respond to changes caused by climate issues.

“A lot of that comes down to how good our models are and how good our math is,” he says.

Darrow’s ultimate goal is to go into academia, using his mentorship and teaching experience to make himself a better teacher and researcher.

“I think it’s important to try to apply your skills to do something well, but also help others get there themselves,” he says.

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