Student Profile - Lucas Castle

Math major Lucas Castle finds strength in numbers

Lucas Castle always knew he loved mathematics, but it wasn’t until he gained the confidence to do a little Lucas Castleresearch that he discovered the field offered him a future full of possibilities.

“Growing up, I had this stigma in my mind that if you’re majoring in math, your only option was to teach,” said Castle. “But there are tons of opportunities out there for mathematicians that I was never aware of until recently.”

Upon high school graduation in 2008, Castle was awarded the Mirabeau Scholarship from Lamar University and made plans to study chemical engineering in the fall. The Beaumont native found college much more challenging than he had anticipated.

“In high school, I kind of breezed by, but college is very different from high school,” said Castle. “People always tell you that, but you really don’t realize it’s true until you take some courses. My first semester really helped me figure out how I needed to study and helped me realize what I needed to do.”

Castle adapted to his college workload and in his sophomore year he added math as a second major, but he still wasn’t quite motivated about his future.

“I just wanted to do the bare minimum and get through it, which you’d think as a Mirabeau scholar my attitude would have been different,” he said. “You’d think I’d want to go on to really achieve, but I was just really lacking confidence in myself at the time.”

Castle began look into his options, and in Spring 2010 he was accepted into the Exxon-Mobil cooperative education program for chemical engineering where he worked off campus for the entire semester. He was responsible for monitoring and analyzing the performance of heat exchangers within the plant.

“I would have to go out into the field to the four units I was working in and do a temperature and flow survey of all our heat exchangers, and I’d put all that data we collected from the field into an Excel spreadsheet where it would calculate the health of the exchangers and if there were any potential risks,” Castle explained. “I also designed an interactive map of the exchangers in my unit that would actually flag which exchangers should be looked at.”

He returned to Lamar that summer conflicted about his career path.

“I kind of came away from the co-op unexcited about engineering,” said Castle. “I definitely enjoyed the environment and the experience, but as far as the work was concerned I didn’t see it as something I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. It just wasn’t something I was passionate about.”

By Fall 2010, Castle was seeking more ways to get involved on campus. He was accepted into the Lamar University Ambassadors Program and was serving as president of the Math Club when one of Castle’s math instructors encouraged him to join Lamar’s STAIR STEP Research Program, designed to increase the number of students receiving baccalaureate degrees in computer science, chemistry, physics, geology, earth science and mathematics.

“I’ve always thought about research, but I thought it was kind of scary, and I didn’t know if I could do it,” said Castle. Through STAIR STEP, Castle was invited to attend his first Texas Undergraduate Mathematics Conference – and it changed everything.

“I had the chance to see all these different areas of research in mathematics that I never knew were out there, and it got me really excited,” said Castle. “I never realized how many interesting research topics there are, and there were lots of graduate school seminars. There was a forum for us to ask questions, and I got a lot of my questions answered about graduate school where I’d had a lot of misconceptions. It all got me really excited, so when I came back I made the choice to devote my studies to math.”

Castle dropped chemical engineering from his degree plan to focus on a math degree and began looking into undergraduate research programs.

“At the time I was still lacking some confidence in myself, I hate to say it, but I went ahead and put myself out there and applied for several research programs.”

In Summer 2011, Castle participated in the Summer Research Program at the University of Nebraska, where his applied mathematics group picked up where previous students had left off on an abstract fractional calculus equation. In two months of research, Castle and his partners broke ground when they found a general solution for the equation.

“Mathematicians have spent years and years on an equation before they’ve arrived at a conclusion, and this is stuff that nobody else has ever really looked at before,” said Castle. “Our predecessors had built up a pretty solid foundation, and we kind of had an intuition about what we expected to be the solution. We had this huge equation and we managed to peel out the solution that we wanted out of the equation, and it was awesome. We were so excited – but we had to prove that the rest of the equation was equal to zero. We had the faculty coming in and everything, just trying to figure out how to show that thing was zero, and we couldn’t do it. So we left it as an open conjecture.”

Castle and his research partners are corresponding long distance in preparation for the Joint Mathematics meeting in Boston, an annual national conference where the group plans to present a poster illustrating their research this month.

“I finally started to give myself a chance and put myself out there, and it has really paid off,” said Castle. “I lacked confidence early on in my education, and I feel like Lamar has really helped me to grow out of that. Now I’m trying to reach for things that are maybe a little outside of my reach – but I’m still confident as I reach.”

Castle plans to graduate in May 2012, and he’s currently in the process of applying to graduate schools.

“My undergraduate research helped me figure out that I definitely want to go to grad school. I’d like to teach at the collegiate level, and I’d also like to do some research, so that’s what’s fueling my desire to get the PhD. There are also a lot of opportunities for mathematicians in industry. The NSA (National Security Agency) hires a lot of mathematicians, so I’m opening myself up to a lot of opportunities,” said Castle. “But I’m glad I’m going to grad school with kind of an idea of where I want to go. I sincerely believe that if I hadn’t come to Lamar, I would not have had any of the opportunities that I’ve had. I feel like my accomplishments have been a direct result of me coming here, and I wouldn’t change that for the world.”