Emma Young ’15 Wins National Math Essay Contest

emma young

Math major Emma Young ’15 won a national essay contest

Senior Emma Young has some advice for the campaign managers of political candidates, but they’ll need to know a bit of math to implement it.

Young has won first place, and a $250 prize, from the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics for her essay on how to understand, and control, the spread of information. She submitted her piece, “The Math Behind…Information Epidemics,”  to SIAM’s annual Math Matters, Apply It! contest.

The contest seeks clearly written submissions from math undergraduates and graduates on the role of math in our everyday lives. The top three winners’ pieces are printed onto colorful posters that are distributed to school classrooms.

Young wrote her essay during winter break when she was home in Moreland Hills, Ohio. A math and economics major, she said she has always loved math and came to Bowdoin knowing she would major in the subject. Next year, she’ll work for Bank of America as an equity research analyst in New York City.

Young starts her SIAM essay by pointing out that the goal of campaigners is to try to use their resources — e.g., their money — most effectively to reach as many people as possible. “To do this, the campaigner wants to optimally control the spread of information leading up to the election to ensure that the maximum number of people are aware of the candidate,” Young writes.

She recommends that campaign staff study the spread of information as if they were epidemiologists studying the spread of a pathogen through human populations. “Mathematicians often apply SIR/SIS models, which are used to model the transmission of communicable diseases through individuals, to information epidemics,” Young writes. One model in particular, the Maki Thompson Rumor Model, is superior for elections, she argues, because it takes into account the psychological aspects of humans spreading information to one another. The model divides the population into three categories: ignorants (those who don’t have the information), spreaders (those who are spreading the information), and stiflers (those who stop the spreading).

Young says the model can be applied to other campaigns as well. “This same type of modeling can be used to optimize the spread of information in social awareness campaigns, movie promotions, and product advertising,” she writes.

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