Top math student will pursue graduate studies at UC Merced

May 8, 2009 

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY LISA JAMES Graduating UC Merced senior Paul Tranquilli, the first student to recieve the UC Merced Applied Mathematics Prize, will go on to study mathmematics at the graduate level with UC Merced next fall. Tranquilli was awarded the prize for earning the highest GPA in the math program. May 6th, 200


EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is one of several that will chronicle the lives of members of the UC Merced inaugural graduating class. As pioneers at UC Merced, their contributions will leave a lasting effect on the Merced community.

When it comes to his favorite college memory, "nothing really sticks out" more than anything else. And when the summer job market in Merced proved impossible to break into, he saved money by living on bread and Kool-Aid.

Born and raised near San Diego, the 21-year-old has switched majors three times since he enrolled at UC Merced in 2005.

Add it all up, and Paul Tranquilli remains a pretty laid-back dude.

Still, the self-described "apathetic high school student" has proved to be no loafer in the classroom at UC Merced.

"I was a really big underachiever in high school," Tranquilli explained. "I did well in classes, but because I was smart, not because I tried hard."

At UC Merced, that mellow way of life quickly fell by the wayside.

"You can't really skate through engineering classes, so I buckled down right when I started here," Tranquilli recalled.

Like many college students these days, Tranquilli dabbled in several fields before settling on one. In his freshman year, he majored in computer science engineering, then switched to applied math. Later, he majored in mechanical engineering, before flopping back to applied mathematics.

He settled on applied mathematics because "it will give me the ability to get involved in a lot of fields. The flexibility is what makes it interesting," he said.

By definition, applied mathematics creates equations and computer models used to provide a mathematical basis to guide other areas of innovation like design or engineering, said UC Merced professor Mayya Tokman.

Tokman has been working with Tranquilli for about a year on a research project to create a more efficient wood-burning stove for Prakti Designs, a company based in Pondicherry, India.

"This is a project that can have a really big impact on the lives of people in developing countries," Tokman explained. "There are millions of people who use wood burning stoves."

Tokman and Tranquilli created a mathematic equation to simulate the efficiency of the stoves. Using that equation, Prakti can test various prototypes of the stoves quickly and with relatively little expense.

"It will basically keep the consumer's cost down by avoiding multiple physical prototypes," Tranquilli explained. With the virtual version, the company could conduct billions of tests until the best design is created.

Tokman said the new design could decrease the amount of smoke -- and the related health issues -- in homes with wood-burning stoves. It could also provide a more efficient heat source in communities where wood is hard to find.

That's not the first research project Tranquilli has been involved with at UC Merced.

In 2007, he was listed as a co-author with UC Merced professor Arnold Kim on a study published by the Journal of Quantitative Spectroscopy and Radiative Transfer.

The article, titled "Numerical solution of the Fokker-Planck equation with variable coefficients," was Tranquilli's first published work as a scientist.

This past March, Tranquilli was awarded the campus' first math prize.

Led by professor Francois Blanchette, members of the UC Merced faculty devised the UC Merced Applied Mathematics Prize to recognize the achievements of the most outstanding undergraduate math student on campus.

Tranquilli qualified for the prize by earning the highest GPA in the math program, doing so consistently in upper division and math courses.

Before deciding to attend UC Merced, Tranquilli was ready to pack up and attend a private engineering school in New Jersey.

Since then, he hasn't regretted his decision to attend UC Merced once because the school is like "a private school at a public price" with its emphasis on research and small class sizes, he said.

Even though he loves UC Merced so much he's returning next year to start a Ph.D. program, Tranquilli isn't afraid to criticize the campus -- even for silly things.

"You look out toward Merced and you don't see a hill for 10 miles," he said, gazing out a window at the library building. "Yet, every day, you have to walk up this big hill to get to class."

While he thinks there could be more businesses aimed toward college students in town, Tranquilli has made good use of local facilities by taking the bus to campus each day.

Tranquilli isn't sure yet which career he will apply his mathematics education to.

"Right now I am having a good time doing this," he said.

And Tranquilli doesn't know where he wants to settle either; San Diego is too crowded, but Merced is too sparse.

Someday, he will calculate a future that's just right.

Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or