Autumn L. Phaneuf ’15 was fascinated with the Japanese art of origami as a girl because she could “take a flat sheet of paper and turn it into something awesome.”
By age 12, Phaneuf was selling her decorative folded papers at local craft fairs. Now, the 23-year-old University student is combining her love of origami with her math studies through an undergraduate research project on differential geometry.
Math wasn’t always at the top of Phaneuf’s “favorite” list. “When you say the word ‘math,’ people cringe, but you don’t realize how much math is involved in everything you do,” she says.
Still, Phaneuf earned an associate degree in math from Holyoke Community College in 2014. “I decided to go for something that would challenge me,” she says.
While at HCC, Phaneuf learned about Western New England University Mathematics Professor Thomas C. Hull, an expert on the mathematics of origami. When she arrived at Westfield State, the innovation of combining math and origami had piqued her interest enough that she pursued an independent study with Volker Ecke, Ph.D.
The research is an “easy, yet complex idea,” which she describes as an “integrated learning experience between mathematics and the hands-on art.” One focus of study, for instance, is to determine if it’s possible to fold a piece of paper into a doughnut shape without having creases. “My goal is to say that origami is more than just an art,” she says. “We can take a sheet of paper that is two dimensional, and fold it into an object that is three dimensional. This new three-dimensional object may be able to expand and contract with ease if there are other small forces that act upon it.”
Phaneuf feels fortunate that Westfield State offers this eclectic research opportunity to undergraduates. “For me, this work is like second-year graduate school level because of some of the math behind it,” says Phaneuf, who hopes to ultimately work as a college professor. “My intention is to have my research published in a journal. And to sell my origami online, of course.”