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Strategies for Success in the MTFC Project Phase: Lessons Learned

Hello, I’m Omkar. I was a semifinalist in the Modeling the Future Challenge for the 2021-2022 year and a finalist the following year. Over the previous competition years, one of the greatest challenges in the MTFC has been moving on from the “idea” for a project to actually conducting research about the project.

Research can seem daunting, often due to the gravity of the MTFC. With scholarship money on the line, and grades for some, the MTFC can be stressful. However, it is important to keep in mind that the Challenge is not life-determining, and approach it calmly. Not only will this help with performance in the project, but it is also better for one’s mental health.

With that said, a key frustration about research is that it seems paradoxically sparse yet overwhelming. With the internet, there is a wealth of information to be accessed about any topic, yet information about a specific niche can be difficult to find. To circumvent this difficulty, it is key to first refine what you are searching for. The “Project Proposal” should have helped with this; it allows you to conduct more targeted research. Furthermore, organization is important. While searching, organize your results. Often, something that seems only tangentially related to the project can become important down the line. To organize my research, I simply have a folder on my laptop where I divide things up, but any system that works for you is suitable.

More specifically, with MTFC involving a great amount of mathematics that is often taught in school, it can seem confusing to understand where to look for “math models” and education regarding math. First, a good MTFC project does not have to involve “sophisticated” or necessarily incredibly “difficult” mathematics to be a good project; the math is a tool for risk analysis, and the goal is for the risk analysis to be robust, not complicated. With that said, a good place to start research into risk-based mathematics is a basic understanding of probability, with entire courses being available online. 

Beyond that, when searching for specific “math models,” you should try to find meta-research about your topic. Meta-research, or research about research, cites and compares several studies in a particular field. Not only are they an efficient way of finding different math models, but meta-research often compares the strengths and weaknesses of different models and provides concise summaries of different modeling strategies. More generally, meta-research can help with research in general, not just math modeling, due to how expansive meta-research studies often are.

Beyond the internet, consider visiting local libraries to see whether they have any available resources. Often, libraries might lack books but be able to order them. Try seeing if there are any local experts on your topic or reaching out to experts in your field to gain a more experienced perspective.

Jumping from “idea” to “research” can be a leap, but it is more than doable. Be sure to approach the process with patience and remember to enjoy the process. I wish everyone doing the MTFC the best of luck with the project phase!