Feature Stories 2024: Shawn Koohy '24: Opportunities in research

Shawn Koohy presents in the Claire T. Carney Library Grand Reading Room
Feature Stories 2024: Shawn Koohy '24: Opportunities in research
Shawn Koohy '24: Opportunities in research

Mathematics major builds prolific undergraduate research career

When Shawn Koohy '24 started at UMass Dartmouth in the fall of 2020, he didn't have much of a research interest. Fast forward to the spring of 2024, he graduated as one of the most decorated undergraduate researchers in the country and will begin his mechanical engineering and applied mechanics PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.

"Getting involved in research has been maybe the most important thing I've done in college," says Koohy. "Research has opened so many opportunities for me. I've traveled all over the country, connected with people from all different walks of life, and bounced ideas off of people working on things in similar fields."

Getting started in research

During his sophomore year, Mathematics Professor Yanlai Chen, who was recently appointed as the University's Chief Research Officer, asked Koohy if he'd like to partake in neural network research, a method of machine learning that teaches computers how to process data similar to how the human brain does.

"Shawn took 'Math 331: Probability' with me in the fall semester of his sophomore year," says Chen. "His dedication to learning resulted in remarkable progress throughout the course. His perseverance and focus on learning stood out, prompting me to invite him to participate in my research."

This invitation sparked Koohy's passion for research, and kicked off a chain of events that would send him to conferences and residencies in California, Colorado, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington, D.C.

National Science Foundation's REU programs

After a busy sophomore year beginning to engage in research, tutoring his peers, and working as a Teaching Assistant (TA), Koohy decided he wanted to pursue research full-time. Associate Teaching Professor Biyong Luo sent him applications to Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs, funded by the NSF.

"I was accepted into the REU program at Clarkson University and spent that summer working on neural network and differential equation research similar to what I had finished with Dr. Chen," says Koohy. "I loved that experience so much that I applied for another REU program the following summer and was accepted to North Carolina State University to research modeling liquid metal dynamics."

Koohy's research has been published in multiple academic journals, and two more projects are in preparation to publish this summer.

"I think having multiple papers published and so much research experience has been a leading factor in being accepted into so many doctoral fellowships around the country," says Koohy. "In a relatively small department at a smaller university, I was fortunate to receive close mentorship with very specialized experts in their field. I don't think I would have had nearly as close a relationship with a researcher of the same caliber as Dr. Chen as an undergrad at a larger institution."

Emerging Researchers National Conference

Building on his impressive background in research, Koohy was fully funded to attend the 2024 Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference in STEM in Washington, D.C., where he presented research conducted with Chen. His presentation was awarded first place in the undergraduate mathematics and statistics category, winning a $300 prize.

"The judges announced the third and second place winners first, who were both friends I knew from my REU program at NC State," said Koohy. "I was so excited for them, I wasn't even thinking about the possibility of coming in first. When the judges read my name, I was a bit surprised. This was the first time I'd presented this work.

"I would suggest students go to as many conferences as they can get funded. I met people in all different majors from many different universities. There were workshops for résumé help, graduate school preparation, and grant writing assistance, as well as admissions representatives from graduate schools around the country."

Outstanding Scholarship Award

On campus, Koohy's research has been supported by the NSF-funded ACCOMPLISH program with research support from Chen's NSF grant. This spring he was recognized by UMassD Provost Ramprasad Balasubramanian in one of two "Outstanding Research, Scholarship, or Creative Work by an Undergraduate Student" awards, which came with a plaque and a $1,000 gift.

"I had no idea I was getting this award, nor that I was even being nominated for it," says Koohy. "It's a great pleasure to have my research recognized by others and reaffirms the value and impact of my work. Dr. Chen has supported all my efforts from the beginning. Having a mentor like him has been one of the biggest factors in my success. Without Dr. Chen, I would not be in the position I am today and I'm grateful to have him support me to the extent that he does."

Left to right: Provost Ramprasad Balasubramanian, Shawn Koohy, Professor Yanlai Chen
Left to right: Provost Ramprasad Balasubramanian, Shawn Koohy, Professor Yanlai Chen

What's next?

After graduating, Koohy is set to attend the North American High Order Methods Conference and New England Numerical Analysis Day at Dartmouth College this summer before beginning his PhD at Penn. He hopes to work in industry or a national research lab.

"Shawn's exceptional level of concentration, maturity, and commitment to his studies are uncommon traits among student researchers of his age," says Chen. "I am confident that he will succeed greatly in his future pursuits. His attainment of top-notch doctoral fellowships from several prestigious programs across the nation further validates that a UMass Dartmouth education provides exceptional preparation for its students."