I was thirteen sitting in my eighth grade geometry class, when I first heard of Fermat’s Last Theorem. We were discussing Pythagorean triples, whole number solutions to the Pythagorean Theorem, and conversation arose about the possibility of solving for exponents larger than two. What about three, four, or five? Eventually, this led to the teacher saying, “This is called Fermat’s Last Theorem. You won’t learn about it until you are much older.” With a dismissal like that, I naturally spent the whole night researching it instead of reading A Separate Peace for English. My fascination for this theorem was two-fold. The theorem is a seemingly simple concept, while on the other hand, it is notorious for being one of the most difficult proofs in all of mathematics. Fermat, himself, claimed he knew how to prove it, but promptly died leaving no evidence to back up his assertion. For over three and a half centuries, mathematicians were stumped by a seemingly impossible problem. Until it wasn’t.
Fermat’s Last Theorem was the impossible math proof, but overtime, collective mathematical knowledge grew. In 1993, British mathematician Andrew Wiles combined others’ theorems and conjectures to show that Fermat’s Last Theorem was a special case of semi-elliptical curves and that the theorem was a modular form. As a result, Fermat’s Last Theorem was proven to be correct. Consequently, once the mathematical community reviewed Wiles’ proof, it was widely agreed that Fermat could not have proven the theorem, because the general mathematical understanding in 1637 was not developed enough yet. Though the story of its eventual solution is exhilarating, to me, this episode underscores a more important lesson that is as true in science and engineering as it is in mathematics: it is not through individual genius, but collective effort and exploration that impossible problems become solvable.
Impossibilities surround us in the world. Here’s my impossibility—developing a solution to the global management of heart disease. Every year, millions die of cardiovascular complications, but nobody has a large-scale solution. My father’s death opened my eyes to the limited treatment options for cardiovascular disease, in that medicine can diagnose the disease, but current preventative measures are inefficient, as it is still the leading cause of death in America. Like Fermat’s Last Theorem, however, this problem does not have to remain unsolvable. Biomedical engineering applications enable us to foresee biological and physiological phenomena, and conceive system-oriented solutions to problems that have previously been treated symptomatically. I aspire to find new ways to track the growth of arterial plaque and blood clots throughout the body to better maintain blood flow, reducing, maybe someday eliminating, heart attacks, cardiac arrests, and strokes.
I see Cornell as my next step towards accomplishing this aspiration. My brother, Matt, went to Cornell Engineering for his B.S. ([Date]) and M.S. ([Date]), and his accomplishments are what initially drew me to the College of Engineering. He was a member of the DARPA Robotics team that built an autonomous vehicle. Cornell’s theoretical approach to systems allowed him to find new ways of visualizing the world when solving problems. Although my brother and I have differing interests, I see through him how a Cornell education fosters a mindset not just to improve the status quo, but to reimagine it.
Cornell researchers are already pioneering the future of cardiovascular engineering, where professors and students are researching “heart-assist technology” to discover better solutions to pediatric heart problems. That project is already seeking answers to many of the questions that motivate me, and I’m excited about the prospect of joining the effort. The college’s theoretical approach combined with its project teams offers a way for students like me to not just learn how to build things, but to understand the conceptual principles underlying each problem. With this two-pronged method, Cornell Engineering will allow me to solve my personal Fermat’s Last Theorem of developing better methods to combat heart disease.