Wake Mathematics Student Earns Prestigious PhD Fellowship

Jessica Zanetell, a second-year Master’s student in mathematics at Wake Forest University, has received a prestigious University Fellowship to attend the University of Arizona Ph.D. Program in Applied Mathematics. This fellowship is offered to the University’s highest-ranked incoming doctoral students and is by nomination only. To receive this award students not only must have stellar academic records but must be engaged in interdisciplinary exchange, collaboration, mentoring, and leadership across multiple communities. In fact, during the entirety of its existence this award has never been given to an incoming applied mathematics or mathematics students. Recipients of the fellowship receive a competitive financial package, professional development programming, mentoring and community engagement opportunities, and a richly interdisciplinary cohort.

Members of the selection committee for this fellowship were particularly impressed with Jessica’s research which uses modern mathematical tools to study the role that rising levels of greenhouse gas plays in climate change. Specifically, Jessica’s thesis studies how fast random fluctuations in greenhouse gas concentration can cause the current perennially ice covered state of the Arctic Ocean to permanently transition to a seasonally or perennially ice free state. Jessica’s work has focused on developing a mathematical theory of such “tipping events” and within the context of her model she has made the following key discoveries:

  1. She has identified which seasons are most vulnerable to tipping. A surprising result of this work is that for a robust range of parameters the winter season is the critical time when most tipping events occur. This results from a time delay between summer melting and changes in the albedo (reflectivity) of sea ice.
  2. She has identified the most probable scenario in which Arctic sea ice will melt. This result is key to our understanding of early warning signs for tipping.
  3. She has developed a quantitative theory for predicting the expected time in which the Arctic sea ice will permanently melt. Combining this result with her results governing early warning signs will allow quantitative predictions of Arctic sea ice melt based off current data.

While the scientific merit of Jessica’s thesis is apparent, her thesis is also significant because of the mathematics she has applied. To answer the above questions, she had to learn new concepts from dynamical systems, stochastic differential equations, partial differential equations, and calculus of variations. These topics are generally taught in the second or third year of a doctoral program. The selection committee was stunned that a Master’s student could not only learn these concepts but apply them to a research level problem in such a short time.

In addition to her academic accolades, Jessica’s dedication to Wake Forest University made her an excellent candidate for this fellowship. First, she is the student director of the “Math Center” which serves as a tutoring center for our undergraduate students. As a teacher she is very patient, empathetic, and has a knack for helping students. The students clearly enjoy working with her as she is one of our most popular tutors. Second, she was one of the founding members of the Wake Forest chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) and she plays an active role in organizing events for the chapter. She is also part of a team of students organizing a local conference at Wake Forest entitled “Integrating Research Ideas in Science” (IRIS) which is specifically focused on highlighting research by women graduate students at Wake Forest. Finally, she is formally and informally mentoring several young women mathematics majors at Wake Forest.

Clearly, Jessica Zanetell in an exemplar of the teacher-scholar ideal we value at Wake Forest which made her an ideal candidate for this fellowship. At Arizona she will be an excellent representative of the best students we have at Wake Forest and we wish her the best of luck.