Seeing the natural world through a mathematical lens | MIT News


Growing up in Wallingford, Connecticut, David Darrow enjoyed spending time outdoors, hiking and camping with his Boy Scout troop. He was fascinated by the environment around him, constantly asking himself questions about the natural world.

Now a senior at MIT with a major in math and a minor in German and physics, Darrow is still studying natural phenomena. With fluid dynamics and climate modeling as his main interests, he enjoys using mathematics as a way to explore the world around him.

“I see math as the language in which the universe operates. It’s a really cool way to understand how nature works,” he says.

Darrow’s introduction to mathematical research at MIT began when he was a senior in high school, through the MIT PREMIUMS research program for high school students. Under the direction of two mentors, he worked on developing a new algorithm to more accurately and efficiently simulate the movement of fluids in a cylinder. Although the project ultimately failed, mathematically speaking, it galvanized his interest in the field – with failures included.

Early in his freshman year at MIT, Darrow undertook numerous research projects on everything from minimal surface theory to convex geometry. While some have succeeded, others have not. Darrow says chess has been some of his biggest challenges – and inspirations for new research ideas.

“That’s one of the big problems with math research: sometimes it fails and there’s nothing you can do about it. But if those things weren’t failing, it wouldn’t be interesting to study them in the first place,” he says.

In the spring of his freshman year, Darrow worked alongside postdoc Daniel Alvarez-Gavela to study the symplectic topology of homotopy spheres. It was Darrow’s first project working side-by-side with someone else; his earlier research experiences had been conducted more independently.

Darrow is currently studying protein folding with PhD candidate George Stepaniants, using statistical geometry to study and compare the differences between the foldings of these large, complex molecules. Using cataloged data, he hopes to see if certain proteins are related and share an evolutionary past.

Darrow also discovered a second passion during his time at MIT: language. Starting with German in first grade, he is now learning Russian and French and revisiting Spanish, which he started studying in high school. His interest in these languages ​​is partly motivated by the fact that many of the subjects that interest him were initiated in languages ​​other than English. So by learning languages ​​like German and Spanish, he can connect to more people in math and learn from their research. He also understands that some experts are more comfortable conversing in their native language, so he might be missing out on valuable information – on math or many other topics.

“There are a lot of people you can’t get in touch with if you don’t speak the same language as them,” he says.

Darrow has also endeavored to present his own research in other languages. For example, in the spring of his first year, he presented one of his research projects on convex geometry in Spanish at the Víctor Neumann-Lara colloquium in Mexico. He has also submitted work to two French journals in the hope of being published.

The pandemic has also heightened Darrow’s appreciation for languages, as he sees the value of the internet as a learning tool for online education. Using programs like Duolingo and MIT Open Tutorial himself, he understands the tremendous potential of accessible and user-friendly platforms to revolutionize learning, especially in subjects like math and science.

“There are a lot of people in the United States who have language barriers, or partial language barriers, which makes traditional American education very difficult. If you’re not 100% comfortable with the English, then learning arithmetic in English will be much more difficult, through no fault of your own,” he says.

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

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

“A lot of it depends on the quality of our models and the quality of our calculations,” he says.

Darrow’s end goal is to enter academia, using his experience in mentoring and teaching to become a better teacher and researcher.

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


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