Mathematics is a universal language understood in all cultures and countries. With such a worldwide presence, it's not surprising Laura Balzer is enthralled with the thought of using mathematics to serve humanity and make the world a better place.
"I've always loved math!" says Balzer. "My earliest memory is sneaking off to do my older brother Bryan's math homework." Her love for math took off in 2nd grade with times tables and long division. "That's when I asked my teacher, Mrs. Lee at Middlebury Elementary School, to create problems for me to solve during indoor recess." It was Mrs. Balek in Memorial Middle School who turned her on to algebra. "I've been fortunate I've never hit a brick wall in math," says Balzer. "Mathematics is the search for the truth while other disciplines like philosophy only talk about the truth. It is solving problems and finding an answer you know is right."
Balzer attended Westover High School, an all-girls private school in her hometown of Middlebury, Connecticut. Westover comprised of half boarding and half day students has a strong Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Program that strives to address stereotypical gender issues in mathematics and science. "I worked very hard during my high school years to reach my goal of learning the most I could in the time given to me," said Balzer. She particularly loved AP calculus class with Dr. Pollina, the Head Mistress at Westover, whose passion for the subject often inspires comments such as, "That is so interesting! That is so cool! I want to learn more of that!"
It is clear mathematics is embedded in her family. Her mother, Melinda Burbank, teaches chemistry at Westover, and Laura's father works for Biomedical Technology in Irvine, California. She has two older brothers: Bryan, a pure mathematics major at Marquette in Milwaukee; and Clayton, who studied civil engineering at University of Colorado and graduates this year focusing on Music Production.
Balzer's desire to be close to Connecticut caused her to look for higher education opportunities in New England. "UVM had just started its Honors College and I was very excited to help shape its future," says Balzer. "Burlington's culture, size, location, and close access to the mountains make Vermont a great place to snowboard, hike, and hang out with friends downtown."
Balzer is currently a junior majoring in applied mathematics, with a minor in chemistry and statistics, and with a sprinkle of Spanish. At the end of her sophomore year, Balzer finally declared her major in math after a meeting with Dr. Robert Taylor, Dean of the UVM Honors College, who observed, "Laura, whenever you mention math, you get a smile on your face."
Dr. Daniel Bentil, an associate professor of mathematics, showed Balzer how mathematics could be used to solve health care problems and help others. "It is fascinating to see that any biological system can be modeled by a set of ordinary differential equations," says Balzer, who works with Dr. Bentil on creating models and computer programs to simulate mass action and Michaelis-Menten reaction kinetics.
Dr. Bentil says, "When Laura approached me and expressed her interest in mathematical biology, I made her aware of the challenges that go with mathematical modeling proposing new models that nobody has seen or worked on before. She looked at me with skepticism, but accepted the challenges and potential failures." Bentil has been amazed at how Laura has been able to grasp the basic concepts of modeling over the past year they've worked together. "She is an excellent researcher as well as an excellent interdisciplinary, undergraduate mathematics student," he says. "She has an avid passion for her work and its quality, and an incessant drive to excel. This is a gifted and dedicated student who exhibits a combination of the best attitudes of leadership and concerned care for her work. Put simply, Laura is a genius in the making."
Balzer received the 2007 Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship presented by Daniel M. Fogel, President of The University of Vermont. She was one of 300 students selected out of over 1500 highly qualified nominees throughout the United States. This award addresses current and future shortages of highly qualified scientists, mathematicians and engineers, and supports the education of outstanding individuals with up to a $7500 scholarship. Awardees are determined by an independent review committee appointed by the Barry M. Goldwater Foundation. "We are proud of her accomplishments," said Domenico Grasso, Dean of the UVM College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences (CEMS), "and pleased she has received this award."
In the summer of 2006, Balzer spent five weeks volunteering in a service-learning program in Guayaquil, Ecuador. "I have been fortunate to do a lot of traveling with my family and friends, but this was my first trip on my own. Moreover, I was headed to Ecuador, a country whose name sounded dark and mysterious," said Balzer. What follows is her personal account of this incredible life-changing experience:
I arrived shortly after midnight and was greeted by my host mother, Lola, and my host brother, Andres, who ate, slept and dreamt soccer. The next morning I awkwardly met "mi abuela, Otra Mama," while I was wearing only a towel, after the first of many cold showers. Carli, who was the nanny and cook, became my Ecuadorian best friend. These four individuals were my family for the next five weeks.
I traveled to Ecuador through the International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership. There were 26 other students in my program and we became fast friends. Each day we volunteered at our agency and came together at night for classes at the Universidad Espiritu Santo. There, we were "adopted" by the Club Internacional or as it was nicknamed "The International Dating Club." These native Guayaquillenos not only helped us feel at home on their campus but also showed us the hot spots of Guayaquil. Besides learning to salsa, meringue, and reggeaton, I also took a Spanish class and a Sociology Seminar titled "Institutions in Society," which was an integral part of the service-learning program. Through this course we examined the systems and structures of Ecuador and Latin America, which helped us to see things from a different perspective, as well as to reflect upon and better understand what we saw, heard, and experienced daily.
On weekends, I traveled! I went snorkeling, whale watching, and hiked through a cloud forest. I stood on the Equator. I climbed through the rain forest to reach the world's most magnificent waterfall! I mountain biked under waterfalls, and went to hot springs at the bottom of an erupting volcano. I tasted and saw breath-taking things. Yet, my trip to Ecuador was not life changing because I hiked up a volcano in a blizzard to reach a glacier on top, but rather it was life changing because of my volunteer work. Every weekday at Fundación Cariño, an agency dedicated to the rehabilitation of malnourished children, I worked with 60 volunteers, none of whom spoke English. We shared the same passion, our love for children; and in this case, starving children.
In Ecuador one third of the children younger than five are suffering from chronic malnutrition. Andrea, one of the sweetest girls in the world, was seven years old, and every morning she would try to give me a hug. Malnutrition had caused such severe mental and physical retardation that Andrea lacked the coordination to hug. My work was absolutely heartbreaking; yet, I would not have changed it for the world!
I agree wholeheartedly with the goal of Fundación Cariño: invest in the future of Ecuador through the physical and mental rehabilitation of its children. The Foundation opens its doors to anyone who needs help and everyday 120 children arrive by school bus from Duran, a community just outside Guayaquil proper. The children, from 2 months old to 5 years old, receive two meals, high in calories, proteins, vitamins and minerals, and meet with the Foundation's doctor for physical therapy. The Foundation also offers preschool and elementary school education and is dedicated to teaching the values of "justicia, honestidad, generosidad y veracidad" justice, honesty, generosity and truth.
The majority of my time was spent in el cunero the nursery with babies under a year and a half. The majority were in the third and most severe state of malnutrition. Lesler, who had the most ticklish toes, was 9 months old and weighed only 4.363 kilos roughly 9 and a half pounds. When I was born, I was 8.5 pounds! I found myself asking why? Why do these children have to suffer? Poverty is the principal factor in the high rates of malnutrition. As my good friend Rodrigo said, hay muchas familias no viviendo con menos de un dólar cada día sino muriendo lentamente ("there are many families not living less than a dollar a day, but rather, slowly dying"). Seventy percent of the people in Ecuador live in poverty, and forty percent in extreme poverty, defined as less than sixty cents a day.
Sadly, it is the children who suffer the most.
Everyday I left covered in food, tears, boogers, you name it; but everyday I left with a smile. I do not know when I will go back to Ecuador, but I owe it to those children not to lose perspective. I am so fortunate! I have never been cold, I have never been hungry; I have never truly been in need. I also know that I cannot change the world, I cannot end world hunger, but I can remember how lucky I am, and that I do not have to change the world to make a difference. All that matters at the end of a day is, "have I done something to make someone else's day a little better?
Balzer's awareness of "how fragile life is" has changed her. She had previously considered becoming a doctor, but working with Dr. Bentil has allowed her to combine her love for mathematics with her passion for helping people using mathematical models, finding solutions to health care problems, and applying statistics to create preventative medicine programs are powerful ways to save the world.
For more information on the work being done in Ecuador, contact Johnny Gonzalez (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Balzer has made a point of joining and becoming an active participant in life. On campus she is an active member of Tae-Kwon Do Club, and the only math major in the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). Balzer and fellow student Barbara Dewey submitted a proposal for Pi Mu Epsilon, a national math honor society, to petition UVM to form an active chapter. Balzer also is a member of the Honors College Leadership Committee which holds social and volunteer events for the Honors College and greater community. Balzer's community service includes volunteering and assisting fellow students. "I truly enjoy working Sundays at the Food Bank, as well as helping other students with Math, Chemistry, Spanish and Stats," says Balzer.
"UVM has shown me the power of computers in mathematics," says Balzer. "I believe mathematics, and the majority of all research, will be done on computers in the future." Introduced as a freshman, to Mathematica, her knowledge has grown to include JAVA, Matlab, Minitab, and SAS. Balzer currently needs two more credits to graduate. But true to her goal, she plans to pack courses into her senior year, as well as write an honors thesis with Dr. Bentil on the mathematical modeling of blood coagulation.
Balzer is a true leader, able to recognize a need and take appropriate action. And her research will impact many, which leads one to wonder what that algorithm might look like, multiplied exponentially? It's all about making the world a better place, creating a global impact. Go figure!