Undergraduate Workshop on Dynamics of Excitable Systems (Jan. 2017)

Eighteen undergraduate students from around the country gathered at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York January 8-14, 2017 to take part in the Workshop on Excitable Systems supported by the National Science Foundation. Led by Elizabeth Cherry from RIT and Flavio Fenton from the Georgia Institute of Technology, the workshop gave students an opportunity to learn about excitable and oscillatory systems from theoretical, experimental, and computational perspectives.

Lectures on the mathematics of dynamical systems, including fixed points, bifurcations, oscillations, and chaos were interspersed with chemical and physical demonstrations of these properties through systems like the oscillating Briggs-Rauscher reaction and the propagating Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction as well as a saline oscillator and a candle oscillator that can exhibit chaos. Computational exercises involving the logistic map, the pendulum, and the FitzHugh-Nagumo equations helped students understand how the mathematics they learned and the physical systems could be understood geometrically.

As the week progressed, students were given an introduction to cardiac action potentials and electrical waves, which can describe normal and abnormal cardiac rhythms, and also studied the heart by dissecting preserved sheep hearts in groups. The workshop culminated in a project that used GPU-accelerated web-based codes to map out the dynamics of parameter space in a popular cardiac model. The students’ results will be incorporated in a manuscript currently in preparation.

A key goal of the workshop was to provide students with an interdisciplinary perspective: the participants were assembled into teams that included at least two different majors. Learning from different perspectives and communicating across disciplines led to deep conversations as students as students worked to interpret what they were learning. “I really enjoyed being able to share our findings and have discussions regarding what they meant in a broader sense,” reported one of the participants in the follow-up survey.

Students also enjoyed getting to experience a taste of research. One participant wrote that “running simulations on the TNNP [ten Tusscher-Noble-Noble-Panfilov] model that had never been done before was awesome! It felt like I was helping to advance science.”

The participants came from 8 institutions: Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvey Mudd College, Nazareth College, RIT, Stony Brook University, University of Delaware, University of Maryland Baltimore County, and University of Rochester. Postdoctoral associate Abouzar Kaboudian and graduate student Conner Herndon from Georgia Institute of Technology aided Cherry and Fenton in working with the students and led some of the activities.

Variations on the January workshop will be offered for the next three years and will touch on the different areas of expertise of the eight-institution collaborative grant, led by Scott Smolka of Stony Brook University, that supports the project. New topics may include formal verification techniques from computer science and pacemaker algorithms from engineering.

A professionally produced video about the workshop is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQnFzTT7Ioc.