Inspired by grandfather, Arya McCarthy’s student research ranged from simulated brains to political polarization

Graduating senior Arya McCarthy has been a frequent presence on SMU’s campus practically since the day he could walk.

By Kenny Ryan
SMU News 

DALLAS (SMU) – Graduating senior Arya McCarthy has been a frequent presence on SMU’s campus practically since the day he could walk.

John and Arya McCarthy
John and young Arya McCarthy

As a child, he would stroll across verdant lawns, his tiny hand held firmly in his grandfather’s gentle one, as his grandpa, John McCarthy, checked his mail.

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John McCarthy was a biology professor at SMU, where he taught Mustangs and researched endocrine physiology from the 1950s up to his retirement in 1999.

Neither knew then just how grand a role SMU would play in Arya’s life.

Fast forward to the summer of 2016. Arya was a President’s Scholar at SMU, three years into his pursuit of bachelor’s degrees in both math and computer science, and a master of computer science. With the presidential race well underway, people were describing the American electorate as being more partisan than ever, and Arya wanted to know: Was it?

“We wanted to see, first of all, whether this was a real phenomenon we should be concerned about,” Arya says. “Second, if it was happening, we wanted to know how to characterize it. Were we just moving away from the center, or were we flattening our positions uniformly along party lines?”

Arya McCarthy
Arya McCarthy
John McCarthy
John McCarthy

For Arya, this new question was child’s play compared to past SMU projects. He spent the summer of 2016 working under a Hamilton Scholarship with Scott Norris, associate professor of mathematics, developing improved neuro-network simulations that would allow scientists to conduct virtual brain experiments without slicing and dicing any actual human brains.

Measuring political correlations would likely be more accessible to most people than simulated brain surgery – and increasingly a lot more topical.

“In 2015 and 2016, everyone became interested in politics…and the big buzzword everyone was hearing about was polarization,” Arya says, “I had worked with Dr. Norris in the past, and he knew Professor Matthew Wilson in political science, so the three of us decided to put together a mathematical and statistical representation of what’s really going on with the American electorate.”

The project was funded by a Robert Mayer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, offered by the Dedman College Interdisciplinary Institute. Arya and the professors began gathering 40 years of data, and presented the results in April. The answer to both of Arya’s original questions is yes – the American electorate is more partisan, and party affiliation correlates more strongly with issue positions than in the past.

“In the 1980’s, opinions on individual issues accounted for 20 percent of the variance in someone’s political positions,” Arya says. “Now it accounts for 40 percent – twice as much.”

The next question, Arya says, is, “Why?”.

This summer, Arya, Wilson and Norris will work on preparing their research for submission to a political journal for publication.  The work Arya has done at SMU demonstrates the wide variety of topics that benefit from analysis using mathematics tools, according to  SMU mathematics Department Chairman Alejandro Aceves.

“Knowledge gained using differential equations to study oscillators help us in trying to understand the behavior of the brain or even the behavior of the electorate in a volatile political environment,” Aceves said.

Arya’s next stop after graduating from SMU will be at the Johns Hopkins Center for Language and Speech Processing where, as a Ph.D. student, his challenge will be to tackle the artificial intelligence behind translation applications like “Google Translate.”

“Being a resource to those people who speak less-popular languages means bringing them into the global information community, and then opportunities for upward mobility and increased health and safety open up to them,” Arya says. “It’s a practical, relevant problem in addition to being an interesting computational project.”

But before Arya heads off to Johns Hopkins, he has one more thing to do at SMU. It’s time to walk the stage in cap and gown at Moody Coliseum.

But when he does, one familiar face will be missing. His grandfather passed away last January.

“He’s the one who always stressed the importance of education,” Arya says. “He was the one who said I should consider applying to SMU. This place was intensely personal to him and to me. It was a connection between the two of us. And now here it is, graduation, and…”

Arya’s voice trails off.

“I hope he would be pleased with the things that I’ve done here,” he says.


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