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Profiles: Catherine Roberts '87

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Catherine Roberts '87
Associate Professor of Mathematics at Holy Cross College, Editor of Natural Resource Modeling

By Alix Roy ’07

As all high school math teachers tell their students, math is all around us. Though most of us recognize that simple mathematics like addition, subtraction, and percentages are important in our everyday life, we don’t usually appreciate the higher levels of math that make many of our recreational endeavors possible. Catherine Roberts ’87, currently an associate professor of mathematics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., was recently named editor-in-chief of the journal National Resource Modeling, which publishes mathematical modeling research. These studies often go unnoticed by the public, despite their relevance to current environmental concerns involving national parks and the impact of tourists. Over the years, Roberts has become increasingly involved with environmental mathematical studies, serving on the board of directors for the Regional Environmental Council of Massachusetts and designing two community-based learning courses at Holy Cross, where students conduct research projects for local environmental organizations. In 2007, Roberts will organize the World Conference on Natural Resource Modeling.

While teaching at Northern Arizona University, Roberts got her first opportunity to participate in highly publicized research funded by the Department of Interior’s National Park Service. Her task was to develop a computer model that would simulate recreational whitewater rafting traffic patterns on the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon National Park. With over 22,000 visitors signing up for rafting trips down the famous waterway every year, the Park Service has become aware of the possible environmental consequences caused by overcrowding and pollution. Currently, the park has a system in place that forces private boaters to wait over a decade for a permit, while tourists can pay for passage with commercial companies just a year or so in advance. Using Roberts’s model, the Park Service is now able to test alternative launch calendars for their whitewater rafting trips. The program allows them to create different simulations by adjusting the amount of traffic on the water at any given time, and changing the balance between motorized and nonmotorized vehicles. These simulations provide insight into the downstream consequences of any arrangement, allowing the Grand Canyon managers to select a schedule that has minimal environmental impact while continuing to offer visitors the same intense wilderness experience.

News of Roberts’s project appeared in the journal Science, aired on several local public radio shows, and guaranteed her continued opportunities to participate in similar projects. For Catherine, however, the most exciting part of the Grand Canyon project came from its interdisciplinary nature. In order to be successful, she was forced to rely on, and add to, her knowledge of history, ecology, economics, and computer science. Looking back, Roberts stresses the importance of her liberal arts education in allowing her “to appreciate the interconnectedness of the various aspects of this project.” She credits former Bowdoin professor Paul Hazelton of the education department for allowing her to see this, and for “demanding that I think and develop my ideas.” It is exactly this ability that allows Roberts to utilize her math skills for a greater purpose, creating complex models that can make a difference in the real world. 

Posted February 01, 2006