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"We Study to Become Useful"

French House Focus: Rachael Keller

Ogden Honors College senior Rachael Keller truly embodies one of our favorite Honors College maxims: Honors opens doors-- doors to opportunities both on LSU's campus, and in the wider world. During her time at LSU, she's been deeply involved in math research, pursued internships at the US Department of Energy, learned Chinese, studied abroad in Beijing, and received multiple prestigious fellowships, including an Honorable Mention in the 2014 Goldwater Scholarship competition. We recently sat down with Rachael to hear a little bit more about her myriad undergraduate adventures and accomplishments, and what she's planning for her future.

How did you first become interested in studying Chinese?

Well, originally, it was because I needed to take a foreign language credit at LSU! So I took the classes, I enjoyed it, and one of my professors really pushed me to go further. If you had told me when I was senior in high school that I would study Chinese, I probably would have laughed in your face. But these things are supported at LSU. There’s room to grow here.

Plus, I wanted to study abroad. I have the LSU Chancellor’s Alumni Scholarship, and part of that is a $2,000 stipend to study abroad. So that kind of became the dream for me: to go abroad to China, and to have an understanding of the culture, the history, and of course the language. So that motivated me to continue studying Chinese.

Tell me about your study abroad experience—when and where did you go?

I studied in Beijing in the spring of 2013, on an LSU bilateral exchange with Beijing Normal University—it’s a really good school. The nice thing about Beijing Normal is that there are a ton of international students. So my roommate was Japanese, my best friends, who I still keep up with, were Italian and Thai. I met maybe one other American while I was there. Studying abroad really makes you think about ethnicity, and what exactly makes you American. That was a question I struggled with. Because I didn’t know, and those were thoughts I hadn’t had before. Going abroad totally—literally, totally—changed me as a person, and changed the way that I think. I would recommend everyone study abroad.

How did it change you?

There was so much that was new to me in China. I love Chinese culture. It’s so rich, and the people there were just really kind, and for no reason. It’s just fantastic there. But it was also an adjustment. In China, it’s just a different framework you’re living in. Here, we go to a restaurant, and we sit down, and we get a nice big cup of cold ice water. You don’t have that in China. You sit down and you have to remember to ask to get water, and when you do get the water it’s in a teacup, and it’s boiling hot. It has to be boiled to get rid of bacteria. You can’t just go to your tap and get drinkable water, necessarily. During my time in China, 10,000 rotten pigs were found floating in the river that feeds Shanghai’s water supply. These are things we just don’t deal with here. We’re very used to food security; we can buy food and trust that it won’t make us sick. In Ouachita Parish, where I’m from, you can go outside, and it’s really beautiful all the time. Whereas Beijing has such bad air pollution. I’m a runner. I’ve run almost every day for eleven years, and I initially tried to run every day in China, which was stupid, but when you’re abroad, you’re somewhere so new, and you just cling to the few things that are normal to you. But yeah, I got really sick. I went to the hospital, I ended up on inhalers. Running in China is like slowly poisoning yourself. The air is like a soup of smog and particles.

But here, it’s easy to ignore all of that because it’s not part of our life, and it’s not something we want to be a part of our life. In China, I realized: I’m really, really lucky. It transformed me intellectually and academically. I realized, I’m enrolled in a university, and I can study these things—air pollution, food security—and maybe do something, even something very small, but still something, and bring attention to these issues. There’s a lot of opportunity in America to study science, and as students, we should really cherish that because a lot of people in China don’t have access to education at all.

Now that you’re back at LSU, are you doing research on air pollution?

Well, I’m a math major, and my concentration is in computational math. Computers are finite; a computer can only store so many values. So how do you represent equations, or engineering solutions, with numbers that are really, really small, or really, really large? Or, with given data, how can you determine a mathematical description of what is observed? With computational math we can prove techniques that form the basis of computer programs to approximate huge dynamical systems up to some error, or approximate this or that function over some domain in a certain way.  We optimize or maximize what the computer can do.

It’s kind of like a wedding of math and computer science. Computational math is used heavily by the Department of Energy, for example, on various climate models. Last semester, I did an internship working on risk models at Pacific Northwest National Lab, and while there I was able to see some of the atmospheric and climate modeling that goes on there. So that’s what I hope to contribute to, one day. I hope to work with China, in some way, on air pollution, although of course that issue is not specific to China.

Are you writing an Honors Thesis right now?

Yeah! My Honors Thesis is mostly C++ and Objective C, and it deals with topology, which is the study of fundamental structure of spaces. My “journey,” I suppose you could say, in math, started out in topology. I have been studying topology with Professor Dasbach in the Math Department, and I’ve done a couple of REUs [Research Experiences for Undergraduates] in topology. For my thesis, we’re making an app that allows you to draw knots onto a computer or tablet screen, and the app will output a Mathematica representation—Mathematica is a math software library—that will give you all the different pieces, properties and characteristics of a given knot.

Okay, what would you use that for? What does the study of knots accomplish? 

Well, mathematically it’s just very interesting, but the study of knots is what underlies string theory. It’s also used in DNA modeling. If you have a piece of DNA and an enzyme comes and acts on it, it may change the structure of the DNA in a way that’s not discernible. But if you were able to analyze the DNA as a classical mathematical knot, the change would become clear.

It’s so interesting—computers have made a lot of mathematical fields very applicable in ways we had not thought of previously. Like for example number theory: now it’s used everywhere, in cryptography, encryption, and so on. Math compliments computer science so well, it’s beautiful. You know, von Neumann said that math and computer science will someday be the same language. It is all a language; it is all translation. Just like in China, you learn to use X, Y, Z words to buy things, you learn certain constructs in programming will give you X, Y, Z result or perform a function that you want.

How do you plan to pursue all your many interests after graduation?

I’ve been really fortunate. I have a job offer from Goldman Sachs in their technology division, and I have a grad school offers from Columbia’s Applied Math Program and UT Austin’s Computational Science, Engineering, and Mathematics program. For the summer, I was offered a Critical Language Scholarship to study Mandarin, and I also have an opportunity to do the UCLA RIPS (Research in Industrial Projects for Students) Program in Hong Kong. The RIPS Program allows you to do industrial research with companies like Google, Lenovo, Huawei—it’s really cool. I’m just really lucky to have all these opportunities.

So how would you say the Ogden Honors College helped you get to where you are today?

Well, in a classroom setting, you have “nice” problems. By that I mean, maybe the professor wants to trick you with a certain kind of question, but in the end everything has an answer. Everything’s kind of understood in some way. But in real life, a lot of the time, there is no answer—this is something I learned working at Pacific Northwest National Lab—everything’s very obscure, and you don’t have perfect information. And those are the kind of problems you don’t deal with as a student, unless you do projects like the Honors Thesis. With the Honors Thesis, you really get that. The Honors Thesis get you outside of class, makes you deal with problems that may not have a solution, makes you have to work on your own, and think on your own. You have your faculty thesis director, but at the same time they expect you do to do the work. And that’s what really gets you to grow, and keep at it. But it’s nice that it’s guided, and there’s someone checking in on you.

The Honors College staff and faculty are really helpful in that way. And I learned so much about writing. All of these programs that I’ve gotten in to, well, I had to write the application first! As an undergrad, you have all of these things that you’ve accomplished, you’ve worked hard, you’ve grown in some way—but it doesn’t matter if you can’t communicate it. That is how you set yourself part. It’s not just that I did these things—it’s that I can explain them to you. Dr. Arms helped me a lot with this. That’s a great thing about the Honors College. They really support and grow and develop your skills as a writer.

If you had to give any advice to an incoming Honors College freshman, what would it be? 

Don’t let anyone tell you no, insofar as what you want to study. Do not accept no. I would encourage more girls to go out and study code or study math. I can almost guarantee your success, although someone will probably say, “Well, she’s a girl, of course she got this or that opportunity.” That sucks, and you will probably hear that more than once. You work hard, only to have your achievements belittled. But the probability that your repeated successes, in class, research, or programs, is simply a function of special treatment for your gender is just absurd. So remember that, and as Taylor Swift says—just shake it off.

I would also say that there are so many opportunities for undergraduates. At LSU, there’s huge potential and full support for you to grow. It’s meaningful, I think, when someone invests anything in you, whether it be a scholarship, or a professor investing her time in you. Work hard, show your professors you’re interested—the professors here are just so good—and you will get up there. In Chinese, there’s an idiom that goes, “A jade must be polished before it can become a thing of use .” We study so that we can become useful. Even a jade, the most precious stone in China, is not useful until it has been cut. You’ve got to grow; you’ve got study and work hard to become something. 


Article by Liz Billet, Communications Coordinator, Ogden Honors College,