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Exploring the Overlap: Math Professor's Engineering Background Influences Courses, Programs

October 8, 2006

Exploring the Overlap: Math Professor's Engineering Background Influences Courses, Programs

“When I was an engineer, I was a math-y engineer. Now I’m a very engineering-oriented math professor.”

That’s how Professor Mike Sprague explains the evolution of his academic interests and the overlap between his two main fields. Though his education was in mechanical engineering, he’s now a professor in applied mathematics at UC Merced.

“All my research is still very mechanical,” he said.

One project involves computer methods for analyzing interactions between fluids and structures, like what happens when an underwater explosion affects a ship. Sprague hopes to help improve ships chances of surviving those incidents. He’s also working on supercomputer models of convective flow that he says could apply to deep ocean convection.

Research like this informs Sprague’s work with students in UC Merced’s math programs and courses every day.

“We’re trying to integrate the computer from day one in our calculus courses,” he said. “Students have to be more computer-savvy, and we’re very applied in order to help them accomplish that.”

Sprague’s practical approach has also influenced the development of the mechanical engineering major, where he crossed disciplines again to help start a solid, technology-wise program.

In addition to working on research and undergraduate programs, Sprague also leads UC Merced’s graduate program in applied mathematics, in which five students are now pursuing advanced degrees.

“The grad program is very applied and computational,” he said. “We’ve instituted a strong focus on partial differential equations and numerical methods, and we’ve found tremendous students, from high school math teachers to a physicist from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.”

Now the program can begin seeking students for next fall. Sprague said it’s important to know that UC Merced can offer great support for graduate students through teaching assistantships.

One final startup project, an infant daughter, keeps this new professor busy in his leisure hours, as well. At five months old, she’s developing a distinct personality and moving from the newborn stage into active infancy. The same could be said for her dad’s projects at UC Merced - and for all of them, the best is definitely yet to come.