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'Without Dr. Beggs, I could not have made such progress' -- long-distance mentoring leads to research prize for high school student in NY

Jan. 24, 2013

Sir Isaac Newton had Isaac Barrow (calculus), Charles Darwin had John Stevens Henslow (evolution) and Max Planck had Hermann von Helmholtz (quantum theory).

Jiayi Peng

Horace Greely High School senior Jiayi Peng had a mentor in IU physicist John Beggs. 

One day, history may note that Horace Greely High School senior Jiayi Peng -- recent winner of the $50,000 second-place prize in the national Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology -- had Indiana University physicist John M. Beggs as the mentor who made a difference.

Beggs is an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Physics whose works focuses on biophysics, the study of biological systems via the theories of physics. He began mentoring Peng after the then-15-year-old high school sophomore fired off a scattergun email to several scientists about her interest in self-organized criticality, a concept now recognized as one of the mechanisms from which complexity in nature arises.

“I remember I became interested in research during my freshmen year in high school when I read about mathematicians and computer scientists predicting terrorist group activities based on models of their communication networks," Peng said. "Since I have always been interested in mathematics, learning about the possible application of mathematics to a real-world problem excited me."

She delved deeper into mathematical modeling and developed an interest in self-organized criticality after learning of its application in the study of neuronal networks in the brain.

“I found it interesting because of the potential for that research to understand and perhaps help find cures to devastating neurological disorders,” she said. “I was specifically interested in Dr. Beggs’ work since he was one of the pioneers in this field.”

Beggs’ research looks at the large data sets created from experiments that use new technology to study hundreds of interconnected neurons placed on microfabricated arrays of many electrodes -- what he calls “mini-brains in a dish” -- that can be kept alive for weeks while their spontaneous electrical activity is recorded.

John Beggs

IU associate professor John Beggs has Skyped almost weekly with a teen in Chappaqua, N.Y., acting as a mentor to the budding mathematician. 

“The large data sets produced by these experiments have allowed many of the hypotheses inspired by statistical physics to be examined in real neural tissue,” he said. “Our results indicate that living neural networks do in fact organize themselves so that they operate at a critical point, producing distributions of event sizes that can be described by a power law.”

Intrigued by Peng’s intellectual curiosity, Beggs accepted the Chappaqua, N.Y., teenager’s request for assistance, and since 2010 the two have emailed and Skyped with one another almost weekly, still having yet to meet face-to-face.

“I am grateful to have such a wonderful mentor,” Peng said. “He has been very enthusiastic and patient with me ... and has given me great advice and guidance about a wide range of things, from details in methodology to the larger research direction. Without Dr. Beggs, I could not have made such progress.”

Then last month, after more than two years of long-distance exchanges, Peng won the $50,000 second-place prize from Siemens for her study of how neuronal networks could self-organize to the critical point and thereby avoid diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and disorders like autism and epilepsy.

The work Beggs and Peng have done together has also led to the pair co-authoring a research article, “Attaining and Maintaining Criticality in a Neuronal Network Model,” that has just been published in Physica A, a peer-reviewed academic journal for the field of statistical mechanics. Beggs’ research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

This spring, Peng will take her work to the country’s oldest, most prestigious pre-college science competition, the Intel Science Talent Search, which carries with it a $100,000 first place prize and $75,000 for second place.

And what about the $1 million question? When asked if Peng might one day be seen on the IU Bloomington campus as a student, Beggs demurred, admitting that he’d written letters of recommendation for Peng to MIT and several other schools. In fact, she was just given an early decision acceptance at Harvard.

Still, if it weren’t for IU’s Beggs, Peng may not have found the inspiration and the facilitation needed to finish second nationally in a competition that received over 1,500 submissions and awarded over $500,000 in prize money.

“The students who emerge from our school research programs are our future leaders in scientific thought and discovery,” said Horace Greeley science teacher Trudy Gessler. “We offer them the means to engage in authentic research with the generous support of the scientific community. It is essential that we encourage young people to pursue pathways in science research in order to remain at the cutting edge of technology and to be able to decipher the mysteries of the world around us.”

Beggs came to the Bloomington campus in 2003 following a postdoctoral research position at the National Institutes of Health from 1999-2003. He holds a BS from Cornell University and a PhD from Yale.

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