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Greensburg Salem graduate explores new frontiers in science

| Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Matt Hagy
Matt Hagy

It sounds like a challenge from “Mission: Impossible”: Develop a guitar tablature generator to create every possible permutation from 99 different musical chords.

During a competition last month at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, contestants had to solve the problem by developing a working software prototype.

Placing third from a field of 20 was 2004 Greensburg Salem graduate Matt Hagy, 27, a fifth-year computational statistical mechanics doctoral candidate at Georgia Tech.

“This competition uses the mathematical nature of music to create a novel logic problem: How many different ways can you play the same chord on a guitar?” Hagy said from his Atlanta home. “There are over 100 million different ways that an individual may place his or her fingers on the fret board of a guitar. However, only a small number of those combinations correspond to actual chords that a guitarist would want to play. “

Winning the IronCoder competition was based on accuracy, speed of development and implementation, said Beth Bates Wieder of Cardlytics, an Atlanta-based advertising and technology company that sponsored the competition .

“Participants have six hours to develop a program and submit the solution that the program finds. I'm not particularly musically oriented but I don't think a musical background would have helped with this competition,” Hagy said.

He won $500 and a job interview with Cardlytics following his December graduation.

“Participants' solutions were judged based on how many of these combinations their program found. I wrote a program that efficiently scanned through all possible finger-placement combinations and determined whether that combination corresponded to a chord of interest,” Hagy said.

He first experimented to figure out his approach. “Penalties were imposed for submitting wrong combinations,” Hagy said.

Contests like these are known as “hackathons,” Wieder said. “Students were permitted to pick any programming language they wanted since this was a test of ingenuity in problem-solving, not proficiency in a particular programming language,” she said.

Hagy received his undergraduate degree in 2008 from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where he majored in polymer science and engineering, focusing on polymer materials and applying math and computer programs to their use. Polymers (derived from Greek for “many parts”) range from natural materials such as DNA to synthetic material.

“These new materials have potential applications in paints, industrial coatings and consumer cosmetics,” Hagy said. “These applications all require thick liquids that can soften at higher temperatures. One benefit of these new materials is that they offer better control of softening with increased temperature, in addition to additional benefits with how these materials age over time.”

Growing up in Greensburg, Hagy liked math, science and programming. They dovetailed into the major he discovered working in a research program as a freshman.

As a graduate research assistant, he develops computer simulations to explore novel properties of new advanced materials (structured colloids). He will soon defend his dissertation: “Dynamical Simulation of Structured Colloidal Particles.”

He relaxes by biking, traveling and camping. He plans to join an Internet or financial technology company after graduation.

Hagy joined with Professor Rigoberto Hernandez on “Dynamical Simulation of Dipolar Janus Colloids: Dynamical Properties” in the Journal of Chemical Physics, Hagy's most recent published work.

“He has developed theoretical computer chemical codes which have allowed us to characterize novel materials made up of small particles (colloids) and how they interact,” said Hernandez, Hagy's adviser. “With his input we have been able to perform molecular dynamic simulations, the kinds of connections between molecular and human scales.

“Matt has stood out both as an independent and collaborative individual. His knowledge and ingenuity have enabled us to develop various representations to solve problems,” Hernandez said.

Hagy has participated in several hackathons and competes in online international data-science competitions. He is ranked fifth out of 130 contestants in a competition for Facebook interviews.

Hagy laughed and said, “I'm not as smart as I wish and I'm definitely no Einstein. There are plenty of people in this world smarter than me. I just enjoy what I do and that's helped me to get good at it.”

Hagy said he placed third in the IronCoder Challenge “because my program included a small error that reduced its accuracy,” he said. “It's challenging to both figure out how to solve this problem and then implement the solution in error-free code in less than six hours.”

Les Harvath is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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