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Scholar Spotlight

Sarah Stanley: Trailblazing a Path to Graduate School through Early Research

By Allison Monroe
January 31, 2014

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Sarah Stanley

An early start in research prepared Tier One Scholar and graduating senior Sarah Stanley to successfully garner national research opportunities and admissions to renowned graduate programs.   As a college freshman, Stanley knew she wanted to continue studying mathematics in graduate school. She also knew that getting an early start on research would give her a competitive advantage among other applicants.

A Calculus III lecture during her freshman year inspired Stanley to further explore a combination of mathematical and biological research.

“My professor mentioned the application of gradients to neuroscience, and I became intrigued with the biological aspects of mathematical research.  I immediately knew that I wanted to delve more deeply into this area and began looking for research opportunities,” explains Stanley.

Sarah Stanley

 The research process can be intimidating to many students. Some believe that finding relevant opportunities is daunting or that they won’t have enough time to fit research into their hectic schedules. Because the University of Houston is a Tier One research institution, there are endless opportunities for undergraduates to gain research experience.

“I began researching with Dr. Ott, Associate Professor of Mathematics, studying the effects of stochastic delay on signal propagation in gene regulatory networks. This project has been one of the best experiences that I have had at UH,” says Stanley.  “I absolutely love learning the applications that math has to different areas of science.”

Her enthusiasm for the research process continued to grow from that initial experience. “Research provides an opportunity to put what is learned in the classroom into practice.  It is easy to memorize information for a test, but when you are faced with a real-life problem and have to pull from everything that you have learned to come up with a viable solution, you begin to internalize that information,” Stanley remarked. “It  brings to life the things that I learn on a daily basis and encourages me to pursue my studies in preparation for graduate research.“

Once she got started, Stanley was hooked and sought out more research opportunities nationally.  She was accepted to nine different summer research programs and credits her early research experience at UH as giving her the competitive edge.   In 2012, she participated in a summer math program at Carleton College of Minnesota and was selected for the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln during summer 2013.   

Sarah - stanley

Through showcasing her research at national conferences, Stanley further developed her technical communication skills. As a senior with three research projects under her belt, Stanley has presented her research at national conferences including the 2012 Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) National Math Conference in Minneapolis, the 2013 National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and the 2014 Joint Mathematics Meeting in Baltimore, the largest national math conference. 

“Having these opportunities so early in my undergraduate career has greatly increased my confidence as a research presenter,” she mentions. “Nothing compares to the excitement that I feel when sharing new results with others, and this is one of the main aspects that drives me to continue researching.”


Getting started early with research has other benefits, “it provides the opportunity to decide what your real interests are.  After delving into a particular area, you may decide that this project is not something that you want to continue; or like me, you may find that your research is so interesting that you would like to continue the project and pursue a similar field in graduate school,” shares Stanley.

In addition to her research and academic success, Stanley’s accomplishments extend to her passion for music.  Unlike most students, she pursued a non-traditional path by pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics and a Bachelor of Arts degree in music.

“Along with pursuing mathematics, I am also an accomplished pianist, allowing me an additional outlet of artistic creativity.  In fact, music refreshes my mathematical perspective.  It targets a specific area of the brain and stimulates spatial-temporal reasoning which enhances mathematical problem solving.”


Staying active in campus and community organizations is also important to Stanley and has further developed her leadership skills. She serves as an NSM ambassador and as the president of Pi Mu Epsilon Math Honor Society while also being involved in the Golden Key International Honor Society, the Student Government Association, the Honors College, FOTOS, Omicron Delta Kappa, and Phi Kappa Phi.  In the community, Stanley enjoys tutoring high school math students, teaching a kindergarten LifeGroup class at her church, and serving as an emergency response radio operator for the Harris County point of distribution sites.

In five years, Sarah Stanley plans to have completed her Ph.D. in statistics and be working as a statistician in a research position with the overall objective of making a significant contribution to improved health care within certain diseases like cancer and diabetes.  She ultimately hopes to establish her own research group in mathematical oncology.  As an aspiring biostatistician, Stanley is motivated by what the future holds.

“I will be part of cutting-edge research that could potentially lead to discoveries that will enhance the quality and longevity of human life.  Realizing that my work could have such a meaningful impact is the driving force behind my excitement for research.” 

For scholars who have yet to be bitten by the research bug, Stanley has a few words of advice. “If you are unsure about research, I would strongly encourage you to explore your options early and find a project that interests you because you already have a stipend set aside specifically for that purpose,” Stanley encourages.  “Take advantage of it!  Research opens so many doors in your undergraduate and professional careers and you will never regret the experience.” 

One of the benefits of the Tier One Scholarship is the research stipend each Scholar receives. This allows scholars more freedom in selecting a project because the mentor does not need to provide initial funding for the student.  Sometimes, the introductory research experience can lead to the student being hired by the faculty mentor, receiving research fellowships to continue the investigation or pursuing a senior honors thesis.  Other times, as in Stanley’s case, an early research experience can forge a smooth path towards national research opportunities and graduate school.