The Magic of Math and Music
2010 Alumnus, B.S. Mathematics, School of Science
Biomathematician, IU School of Medicine
Update: Tyler Foxworthy currently works as a research scientist for Indigo Biosystems and as a biomathematician for the IU School of Medicine. He also plays first violin for the Philharmonic Orchestra of Indianapolis.
For most people, the sheet music of a symphony by Bach or Beethoven is as indecipherable as a four-page mathematical proof or a world-changing algorithm.
But for Tyler Foxworthy, music and math are twin passions, each expressing something from deep within. One captures the beauty and grace of a piece of classical music written centuries ago, the other is a key capable of unlocking some of the mysteries of the universe.
He is at ease in both worlds.
To Foxworthy, an alumnus in the School of Science at IUPUI, music and mathematics are inextricably linked.
“They both follow laws of order and symmetry,” says Foxworthy, who performs with musical groups ranging from small ensembles to symphony orchestras. “Everything meshes together. You learn to play music by breaking it into smaller pieces, learning one before moving on to the next, until you have learned the whole piece. It's the same as you do in math — you break a problem down into its smaller parts, solving one at a time.”
That's a lesson he teaches his young violin and piano students, usually ages 6 to 10. “My job with them isn't so much teaching them the notes as teaching them how to count internally,” he says. And he's noticed that the students that show the most musical talent often are good math students — just as he was.
The Southport High School graduate from the south side of Indianapolis broke his college career into pieces, too. Thanks to IUPUI's 25-year-old SPAN program (officially, Special Programs for Academic Nurturing), Foxworthy graduated high school in 2008 with two years of college already under his belt. He could have graduated next spring with his math major, but plans to extend his stay by a year in order to earn a degree in IUPUI's demanding biomedical engineering program, as well as the degree in applied mathematics.
“SPAN is a great program,” says Foxworthy. “It challenged me while I was still in high school, and helped me come to IUPUI prepared. When I have a kid, I definitely plan to have them take advantage of SPAN or a program just like it.”
He also became a Bepko Scholar, one of several IUPUI scholarship programs for high-ability students who exemplify the campus's academic mission. Named for Chancellor Emeritus Gerald L. Bepko, the program supports both undergraduate and graduate students, and is one of the cornerstones of IUPUI's Honors College.
Bepko scholars participate in numerous service learning and civic engagement projects, have access to study-abroad opportunities, and are regularly involved in exciting research projects throughout their undergraduate careers.
Tyler Foxworthy excels at both music and mathematics. Whether he is playing his violin at performance level, or applying his skills at advanced math in research experiments, the School of Science student is making his mark.
Plunged into research
Foxworthy, for example, has two research projects in which he was involved. The first, with Dr. Raymond Chin, professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences, is pursuing a better strategy for solving non-linear equations; if achieved, it would have implications for such health and life sciences programs as biochemical interactions, or drug interactions.
The second, with Dr. Ernesto Levy of the School of Medicine's rheumatology division, was created by Foxworthy himself. It involved using a simple digital camera from multiple vantage points on a 360-degree axis to build a three-dimensional image of that part of the patient's body being examined, using statistical and geometric methods in an algorithm Foxworthy is writing.
“The basic method of the algorithm is similar to the way a sculptor cuts away at a 3-D block of marble. In this case the marble exists inside the computer, and each image that is taken is inputted into the algorithm to decide what parts of that 3-D marble needs to be 'chipped away,'” Foxworthy says. After all the images are run through the algorithm, “the volume of the body part will emerge,” he adds.
The idea came in part from a typical child's learning experience with “stereo vision. You hold up a finger in front of your eyes, then cover one and then the other, giving you 'different' looks at the same finger,” Foxworthy says. “If this (software) works, doctors could help patients avoid delays and maybe even expensive imaging, right there in the doctor's office.”
Chin finds Foxworthy a natural researcher. “Tyler has an unquenchable desire for learning, and he is unafraid to venture ahead and to anticipate what is to come,” says Chin. “He always has questions when confronted with an assigned problem, an admirable trait in a researcher.”
Always on the go
As an IUPUI senior, he packed a lot into his time: high-level classes in math and biomedical engineering, the two research jobs, his musical classes and his own practice and performing.
“I keep my piano right outside my office,” he says with a smile. “When I need a break, I go play — it's a great stress release, and really clears things out for me.”
But as much as he loves music — “I listen to a ton of Bach” when he has free time — Foxworthy knows that music isn't his career path.
“I'd like to keep playing, perhaps in a quartet or a chamber ensemble, but I know my career is going to be related to math,” he says. “I'm interested in all kinds of applied mathematics options, in research in the life sciences or in math modeling. It's an exciting field that has all kinds of options that intrigue me!”