By Richard LeComte
LEXINGTON, KY. — On his college track team, Daniel Plaugher faced a lot of hurdles — mainly because he was a hurdler. When he started graduate studies in mathematics at the University of Kentucky, he faced more hurdles, this time of the academic kind. He found that he needed to do a lot of work in abstract mathematics to catch up to the levels of knowledge the program demands.
“Coming in, I knew it was going to be a rude awakening, but I didn't understand how much of a rude awakening,” Plaugher said. “I'm more of an applied mathematician, and the course sequences
that you have to take involve more abstract and theoretical math. For whatever reason, I was not prepared for those courses.”
He received a big boost from the Graduate Scholars in Mathematics program, which assigns first- and second-year math graduate students a mentor — in Plaugher’s case Peter Perry, distinguished professor.
“The Graduate Scholars in Mathematics program was focused on promoting diversity among underrepresented students, including those from Appalachia, and the program also gives extra support during the critical first two years of graduate study in order to master graduate-level mathematics and move quickly into doctoral research,” Plaugher said. “Scholars received fellowship support for the spring term in each of the first two years, allowing them to concentrate more fully on study and research. Scholars also received summer research fellowships in each of the first two years to master the craft of mathematics research under the supervision of a faculty member."
And as in his track days, Plaugher was able to clear his hurdles, and now he’s earned his doctorate this December. Perry, his mentor, finds Plaugher’s efforts exceptional.
"Daniel’s success as a doctoral student — through his own remarkable persistence and hard work — is exactly the outcome that we were aiming for in the Graduate Scholars program,” Perry said. “His thesis adviser, David Murrugarra (associate professor of mathematics), was an exemplary mentor and played a crucial role in Daniel's achievement as a researcher."
Plaugher’s path to the doctorate in UK’s Department of Mathematics, part of the College of Arts & Sciences, began as he was growing up in Salem, West Virginia, where applied math came in handy.
“Math was probably one of my best subjects in school,” he said. “I grew up on a farm where my first experience with math was figuring out problems with my dad. We would build buildings, or we would have little projects here and there so that always got me interested in problem solving. And then, it just always seemed to be my strongest subject.”
After graduating high school, Plaugher studied math at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he ran in track meets across the East coast. Hurdling itself is like applied math, he said: Athletes must count and time their steps to make sure they go over the bars in the fastest time possible.
"In a race, everyone takes roughly the same number of steps. If you are more efficient over the hurdle and you take your steps faster than your opponents, you win the race," he said.
On top of track, Plaugher served as a Teacher in Residence at a local high school that couldn’t fill a math faculty position, in part to fulfill his double major in math and math education. He found that he had reserves of patience to use if his students were resistant to understanding math.
“I had a really busy schedule, but I'm definitely glad that I did the teaching,” he said. “It threw me right into the fire. But, I feel like one of the gifts I've been given is teaching. I really enjoy it. There are some students who are resistant to math because it’s a subject people get scared about. But I never find it extremely frustrating when students kind of push back or don't understand it in the first or second try.”
After his senior year, Plaugher applied to about 10 graduate programs in mathematics; UK came through with funding, so he headed here. His dissertation adviser notes that Plaugher has contributed much more to the Mathematics Department than his intellect.
"In addition to his research and teaching activities, Daniel has been active in leadership and outreach activities within the Math Department,” Murrugarra said. “For the academic years 2020-2022, he was the president of the SIAM (Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics) student chapter at the University of Kentucky, for which I serve as the faculty sponsor. And before that, he also served as the treasurer for the SIAM Student Chapter. During his time as president, he helped to bring outside speakers to help to disseminate applied and interdisciplinary research across campus."
He earned a master’s degree along the way. For his dissertation under Murrugarra’s tutelage, he’s returned to applied math and helped develop a framework that analyzes the workings of cancer within a patient to find better paths to treatment.
Plaugher said his current, small model could run on a standard PC, but more complex models of cancer might need to migrate to a supercomputer.
"What I do is mathematical biology,” he said. “I build computer models of cancer systems and then we search those cancer systems for genes to target. Targeting those genes hopefully will kill out the cancer. Basically, I’m studying dynamical systems, and we search the systems for clues on how to control them. The model that I made for my dissertation was on pancreatic cancer. It only had 69 nodes in the network, which is a small model, so my laptop could handle those types of computations.”
After graduation, he’ll be working as a postdoctoral fellow for two years at the Markey Cancer Center, being trained in cancer biology and shifting his focus to lung cancer.