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Tamar Lichter

College: Macaulay Honors College | Queens College
Awards: Goldwater Scholarship, 2016

Can Math Applications Add Up to World Peace?

Tamar Lichter faces the delightful quandary of being pulled in opposite directions by her love of mathematics. Will she head into pure mathematics or applied mathematics? Luckily, she's pretty good at both.

Her application essay about an area of applied mathematics helped win Lichter (Macaulay Honors College at Queens College, '17) a 2016 Barry Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious undergraduate award in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This federal merit grant, worth up to $7,500 a year, is awarded to some 300 sophomores and juniors each year.

Her essay grew out of a Summer 2015 internship at UCLA. There, she joined a team of three other undergraduates, a graduate student and two mentors from Google on a machine learning project.

You've probably encountered "recommender systems," such as when Netflix suggests a movie because you've previously watched something similar.

Lichter's similarly complicated assignment used public data from Yelp, a company that offers crowd-sourced reviews of restaurants, hair salons, dentists and more.
Her team designed a suite of recommender systems.

"We included the star ratings, but Yelp also has text reviews, which opens up the complex field of natural language processing." Every review involved a location in one of 10 cities, different business categories and trends in star ratings. The team trained their models on a subset of the data and tested it on another subset, trying to predict which businesses a given user would like."It was very cool to be spending 9 to 5 every day involved in research," she says. "I really enjoyed working with a team, as opposed to alone in a classroom setting."

Meanwhile, Lichter also is tempted by pure mathematics. Since high school, she has explored graph theory, a highly abstract field used in the study of objects and connections; graph theory is central to Google search and is used to analyze complex structures like electrical circuits, to model social networks and even to find a given actor's Kevin Bacon number.

On the grander stage (indeed, in a different mathematical theater), this semester Lichter is working on a mathematical model with other Queens students from different disciplines that describes how to sustain peace in various political contexts. "That particular project has been going on for years," she says.

Lichter, who also has studied abstract algebra and computational theory, intends to pursue a doctorate in mathematics after earning her bachelor's degree.