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Science, Society and the Arts Presents: Andrew Mah ‘18 Meet Andrew Mah ‘18, an accomplished mathematician who found an unlikely passion - spiders!

“SSA is important because it brings together everyone from every major and field. This is an amazing opportunity to experience other majors.”

Andrew_Mah-800x533 Science, Society and the Arts Presents: Andrew Mah ‘18Meet Andrew Mah ‘18, an accomplished mathematician who found an unlikely passion – spiders!

Science, Society, and the Arts is a multi-disciplinary conference where Washington and Lee undergraduates and law students present their academic achievements before an audience of their peers and the faculty. Through the conference, students, faculty and staff alike have the opportunity to explore new topics and discuss new ideas. Conference participants share their work via oral presentations, traditional academic conference-style panels, poster sessions, artistic shows, creative performances, or various other methods.

Even though SSA has ended, you can still enjoy these stories about the many interesting projects and performances being presented by the students.

Do RTA-clade spiders possess the same suite of silk genes as orb-web weaving spiders?

Q. Can you describe your project?

We are working to investigate the evolution of web design in spiders. The orb web, the archetypal wagon-wheel web design, was thought to be the pinnacle of web design. However, recent evidence suggests that some spiders are moving away from the orb web, or abandoning web construction altogether. These analyses, though, were based on research that heavily sampled one spider group specifically. We are working to sample more underrepresented groups so that we can add to our knowledge of the silk systems of more understudied spider groups. We hope that this should further our understanding of spider silk systems and how they have evolved over time.

Q. What about the topic made you explore it?

The idea that we can look at gene sequences now to understand events that happened millions of years ago is amazing! And spider silk is so interesting, as well. It has a tensile strength stronger than Kevlar and steel.

Q. What was the most interesting thing you have learned while working on this project?

Spiders can produce up to seven functionally distinct types of silk, each of which has unique biochemical and physical properties.

Q. What was the biggest challenge you faced?

Understanding the nuances of this project requires a pretty solid understanding of genetics and evolution. However, I started this project as a First-Year having never taken genetics. So the scramble to learn enough to actually understand the project was a huge struggle.

Q. What insight – or insights – did you gain during the research period?

I’ve learned how to think more scientifically and how to handle setbacks.

Q. What is your favorite part of creating, researching, or developing this project?

This project topic was something I got to choose myself, so I’m really in love with that. Research-wise, I’m so excited to finally have some results to share!

Q. What does SSA mean to you?

It means coming together to share all of our accomplishments, whether in the sciences or humanities. It’s about sharing and even more, celebrating the work that’s been done on campus.

Q. Why is SSA – considering science, society, and arts together – important to this campus?

It’s important because it brings together everyone from every major and field. So often, we get sucked into just our majors and people in similar majors. This is an amazing opportunity to break out of this and experience other majors.

If you know any W&L students who would be great profile subjects, tell us about them! Nominate them for a web profile.

A little more about Andrew

Radford, Virginia

Neuroscience and Math

Extracurricular involvement:
– General’s Unity
Peer Tutor Program

Off-campus activities/involvement:
I’m currently working with the Rockbridge County school system to start a math enrichment program for interested elementary school students, gifted or not. Math so often gets a bad reputation, when it can actually be a really fun and exciting subject. My goal for this program is to introduce students early on to the elegant and fun sides of math. We try to have hands-on lessons and as many games as possible, so that kids can see that math can be an exciting subject, something beyond multiplication tables and adding drills.

Why did you choose your major?
I chose neuroscience because I’ve always just been so fascinated with the brain. The fact that all our emotions, all our experiences, our entire personality, can be boiled down to the interactions between some cells is just so crazy.

I chose mathematics after taking some upper-level math classes, and being exposed to the elegant logic underlying math. It’s a highly structured, interconnected field. I absolutely love finding these connections and their implications.

What professor has inspired you?
My research advisor, Dr. Nadia Ayoub. She’s been my research mentor since my first year and she’s really helped me discover my passion for research. Going into her lab, I was on the fence as to whether I wanted to go into medicine or research. But after my first summer there, after I got to experience research firsthand, I absolutely fell in love with it.

What’s your personal motto?
“Just keep moving forward”

What’s your favorite song right now?
Lorde’s “Green Light.” I’ve been a fan of hers since high school so I’m so pumped for her new music!

Best place to eat in Lexington? What do you order?
Napa Thai! It’s a toss-up between chicken pad Thai or chicken drunken noodles. Spicy, of course.

What do you wish you’d known before you came to campus?
Listen to criticism from professors! A professor’s critique is in no way a critique of you as a person. Listen to what they have to say and learn from it. That’s what we’re here for and that’s how we become better students and people in general.

Post-graduation plans:
I plan to pursue a Ph.D. in computational neuroscience. I hope to perform research and teach at the university level.

Favorite W&L memory:
My sophomore year, I attended the Mathematical Association of America’s annual conference. We got to go to some amazing talks and dominate in Math Jeopardy.

Favorite class:
Geometric Topology with Professor McRae. No class has as consistently blown my mind or made me think so deeply about the universe.

Favorite W&L event:
My favorite event has to be seeing Laverne Cox speak my first year.

Favorite campus landmark:
A familiar answer, but the Colonnade. It’s just so classic.

What’s your passion?
I’m really passionate about combining mathematical models and neuroscience to study neurodegenerative diseases. I’ve seen firsthand what diseases like Alzheimer’s can do to a person, and I want to work to help develop more efficient diagnoses and treatments.

What’s something people wouldn’t guess about you?
Nobody ever guesses that I’m actually really good with kids.

Why did you choose W&L?
I wanted a small, liberal arts education with a strong neuroscience program. The fact that it’s an hour and a half from my hometown was certainly a selling point for my parents!