Creating a cultural shift of great impact
Nepal has a rich geography. Most famous for the Himalayan Range, Nepal has subtropical river valleys and humid plains; it claims the highest peak (Mount Everest) and deepest gorge on earth. In one day, the weather can be hot in one location, and subzero in another.
Narayan Thapa, MSU math professor, grew up in Western Nepal, surrounded by distant, snow-capped mountains. Life in the village of Purkot was typical Nepalese: he studied hard to please his parents, completed high school with intentions of university and favored spicy food.
Thapa completed a master's degree in math at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. He taught high school for seven years and at Tribuhavan for three years. His keen interest in applied mathematics and weather research took him and his family to the University of Oklahoma in 2003. He studied for seven years, obtaining a Ph.D. in math and master's in education in 2010.
At OU, Thapa earned a Project NExT Fellowship (New Experiences in Teaching) through the Mathematical Association of America. As a fellow, he judged undergraduate research presentations at national math conferences across North America. When Thapa came to MSU in 2010, he recognized MSU math students were equally capable of such research.
"At Oklahoma, there were 10 to 12 seminars in the math department every week. I organized one and spoke in several and saw firsthand how beneficial that would be as a student to share your ideas and have a meaningful interaction with your peers and faculty," he said.
He canvassed colleagues door-to-door, soliciting their participation. The first semester, professors presented to contemporaries and students. Over time, the dynamic morphed into student presentations. Now in its fourth semester, "Math Talks" has created a cultural shift of sorts: students are approaching Thapa wanting to participate. This fall, 10 students will work individually with Thapa in applied mathematical research.
Thapa's criteria are stringent: students must maintain a 4.0 grade point average; the are expected to spend five hours weekly minimum on research; they must present their findings on campus and at conferences; and coauthor a paper with Thapa. He meets with them two hours weekly to monitor progress and offer advice.
"The talks and paper give them the opportunity to learn how to communicate professionally, whether they go to graduate school or into the workforce," he said. "I tell them to remind themselves every day about their goals, then ask themselves, ĎAm I closer to my goal today than I was yesterday?'"
"We have really talented students at MSU," Thapa added. "My job is to give them the opportunity to grow."