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Meet Beth Bjorkman, this year's Outstanding Graduate in Mathematics
Beth Bjorkman, this year’s Outstanding Graduate in the mathematics department, came to Grand Valley undecided about her major. However, one day during her first semester she was talking with her Calculus I professor, Dr. Matt Boelkins, and he told her that she seemed to enjoy mathematics and was good at it; he offered her a closed class permit for his Communicating in Mathematics (MTH 210) course for the following semester. Beth took Dr. Boelkins up on his challenge, took MTH 210, and was hooked!
Similarly, Beth chose her minor (Economics) based on a course she took to fulfill a general education requirement. Initially, she found the course to be boring. She approached her professor and asked him why she was in the class and what she was supposed to be learning. When he discovered she was a math major, he started adding information about applications of calculus to economics into his lectures and discussed the interesting math that occurs in economics. Apparently this approach worked, because Beth added an economics minor to her program of study.
A first generation college student from Menominee, MI, in the Upper Peninsula, Beth was initially drawn to Grand Valley because her sister attended GVSU and by the opportunities present in the Frederick Meijer Honors College. She liked the sense of community in the Honors College and the structure of the general education courses, specifically being able to take the Islamic Middle East Civilization sequence as a freshman.
While at Grand Valley, Beth has had the opportunity to engage in a wide variety of undergraduate research. The summer after her sophomore year, Beth worked with Dr. Robert Talbert in the mathematics department as a part of the Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement program. She and Dr. Talbert explored fixed points of the columnar transposition cipher. This cipher is an encryption method in which a message is written across a predetermined number of columns. Reading down the columns enables one to find the encrypted message. She presented her results at Mathfest (a national summer conference sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America) where she won a Pi Mu Epsilon Best in Session award and at several other venues including the Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics and the McNair Research Conference in Buffalo, NY.
In 2013, Beth worked with Dr. Ed Aboufadel to use mathematics to model fire-fighting in Siberia, winning second place in the French Federation of Mathematical Games 2013 for their work. She also worked with Dr. Jon Hodge as a part of Grand Valley’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. Together with Dr. Hodge and another student, she studied graph theoretical models of interdependent preferences in referendum elections. Her presentation at Mathfest earned her the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics Award.
Grand Valley faculty who have worked with Beth praise her as both a researcher and a student. Dr. Talbert states, “Beth has all the qualities you’d hope for in a student or a colleague: smart, tenacious, creative, and has a positive attitude at all times. She raises the performance level of everyone with whom she works. I can certainly say she’s made me a better mathematician. I really view her less as a student and more as an early-career colleague, and no student I’ve had in almost 20 years of teaching has shown more evidence that she’ll be successful in graduate school and beyond.” Dr. Darren Parker, from whom Beth took three proof-based courses says, “Beth is amazing—a great writer, really smart, and a very creative problem solver. I often had to grade her assignments last because she approached problems radically differently than her classmates. It was my grading dessert!”
While at Grand Valley, Beth has also found time to mentor new students as a part of the Scholar’s Institute program and the Frederick Meijer Honor College mentoring program. Through these programs she has provided freshmen students assistance in writing and time management, and adjusting to college life. In addition, she has provided tutoring in math and economics to GVSU students and has worked as a Structured Learning Assistance course facilitator for a College Algebra course. This position entails meeting with students two days per week and holding nightly study sessions before tests.
Given the rich research experience Beth has gained while at GVSU, it is not surprising that she plans to attend graduate school to earn a PhD in mathematics. While she has not made a final decision as to where she will go, she is currently visiting graduate schools and has narrowed her choices to Washington University in St. Louis, Arizona State University, the University of Nebraska, Iowa State University, and the University of Iowa.
The success that Beth has earned clearly demonstrates the value of being liberally educated, developing leadership skills, and engaging in undergraduate research. These activities combine to shape the lives and careers of students who follow their passions. When asked what part of her Grand Valley education has impacted her the most, Beth said, ”At Grand Valley, everyone—faculty, staff, from the maintenance crew to the director of the Honors College—wants students to succeed. This atmosphere of support and genuine concern has inspired me to do more, try harder, and succeed."