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Math, Medicine, Music: Reith '15 Embraces the Liberal Arts

Thomas Reith '15
Thomas Reith '15

Thomas Reith '15 sits down at the piano, adjusts his posture, places his hands on the keys and begins to play. The 22-year-old Illinois native is a natural, playing Maurice Ravel's Une barque sur l'océan by memory, swaying slightly as each hand alternately pops off the keyboard to punctuate a note, and then gracefully re-joins the other, seamlessly continuing the piece.

Watching him, it's easy to forget those hands have a day job. Several jobs, actually. After all, they belong to a pre-med math major at Davidson College. And as that math major's trusty appendages, they spent the last year doing such things as learning laparoscopic surgery techniques at Carolinas Rehabilitation in Charlotte, and typing a mathematics thesis based on original research Reith conducted (a thesis that earned him high honors in math, no less).

A Donald B. Plott and J. Estes Millner music scholarship recipient, Reith was able to enroll in applied music classes at Davidson free of charge. Though he had played piano for more than a decade prior to college, he was excited to study it at a higher level, he said.

"As long as I have taught piano at Davidson College, I have never encountered a more gifted pianist than Thomas," Davidson Artist Associate Cynthia Lawing said. "He learns pieces very quickly, and works at challenging passages until all the problems are solved. Then he drills them into his memory and muscles."

In addition to his piano study, during his time at Davidson Reith performed at multiple official college events and participated in Opera Carolina's music outreach program, playing piano in local elementary schools. He performed a Chopin piano concerto with the college symphony orchestra and occasionally accompanied the Davidson College Chorale, of which he also was a member and leader for four years.  Additionally, he competed in statewide piano competitions. And that was all outside of his demanding coursework. But Reith wouldn't have it any other way.

Choosing Liberal Arts

Thomas Reith '15 in Berlin
Thomas Reith ’15 pauses for a photo while studying abroad in Berlin.

"I learn by doing work," Reith said, whether it's high-level math, science or piano. "I appreciate the fact that at Davidson I was able to pursue all my interests and didn't have to focus on just one."

Reith attended high school at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a public magnet boarding school. Among his classmates, few sought liberal arts institutions for college.

"Going to a liberal arts institution just wasn't something a lot of people did," he said.

In fact, Davidson was the only liberal arts school to which Reith applied. And looking back on his decision, he couldn't be happier that he did.

Reith, also a Phi Beta Kappa honor society member, embraced the liberal arts experience, taking courses in diverse subjects, and even pursuing a minor in German along with his pre-med and math studies. He traveled abroad to Germany during the spring of his junior year, and lived with a family while studying math and computer science at the Technische Universität Berlin (Technical University of Berlin).

"Davidson encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone," Reith said. "There's such a difference between traveling to a place and living there. I definitely gained perspective, and I think more globally as a result of that experience."

He spent his next semester at Davidson developing a new algorithm to cluster directed networks. The algorithm seeks to identify related nodes using network motifs, or statistically significant patterns, as a basis. This winter he was invited to present his work at the 2015 Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Antonio, Texas-the largest mathematics meeting in the world. There he won an award for outstanding math presentation by an undergraduate.

"It's a completely new approach to working with algorithms," mathematics Prof. Laurie Heyer said.  She did research with Reith for nearly three years and also advised him on his thesis. "Instead of looking just at connectivity within networks, we're looking at patterns of connectivity at a more meta level, and extrapolating information from those patterns" she explained, and the potential for real-world application is huge. In fact, they've applied for a provisional patent on their work. 

"Coming into Davidson I was really interested to find out the difference between pure coursework and applied math," Reith said. "I had no idea what higher-level math looked like until I started doing it."

He was grateful for the chance to work one-on-one with professors and in small groups, which allowed for real, substantive, hands-on research, he said.

"People at Davidson focus on collaboration, not competition," Reith said. "There's such a wonderful sense of community, and I appreciate the relationships I've built and the opportunities I've had both in the classroom and outside of it."

In addition to the community he found at Davidson, "I'm really grateful for my parents' constant support and encouragement," Reith said.

He plans to take the MCAT in July and hopes to enter medical school in the fall of 2016. He will work for a year in healthcare software development starting in August.