Sam Bell, '17

December 9, 2015
Junior's research project will leave you wondering: what's a religious studies major doing working on a math project?

Sam Bell, ’17, aspires to go to seminary and become a pastor after he graduates with a major in religious studies. So when he realized two years ago that he had the opportunity to pursue a summer research fellowship, he was more than happy to do so.

You would presume his research project had some basis in religion.

But you’d be wrong. He actually has been researching EBS construction of bent functions in conjunction with math professor James Davis.

You might be asking yourself, what’s a religious studies major doing working on a math research project? And what the heck is an EBS construction of a bent function?

“I’ve always really liked religion, but I’ve always been really good at math, so freshman year I wanted to double-major in religious studies and math,” Bell said.

And a bent function, he said, relates to something that we do every day.

“When you send out an email or a text, your phone encrypts it into a code of 1’s and 0’s,” he said. “These bent functions allow us to extend these codes that have very good error-preventing potential. You only have 0’s and 1’s when you’re sending out these messages, so there aren’t many possibilities.”

During his first summer working with Davis, his research team became the first in the world to construct all of the 64-length bent functions. And there are more than five billion of them. This past summer, the team began constructing the 256-length functions, and while they did not construct all nine nonillion of them — it’s a real number, with 30 zeros — they were able to construct many that nobody else had constructed before. The goal is to create longer, more secure codes. For example, Samsung uses an encryption code based off of these bent functions.

Bell and the other students grew close to Davis during their work with him. Bell said that Davis stressed the importance of being able to explain clearly the relevance of such mathematical research and also helped him grow as a team player.

“Outside of work he was very friendly,” he said. “Several days around lunch we’d go and play racquetball. Every week we’d go out as a group on Thursdays, and that was a way to communicate things outside of work.”

Davis also supported Bell’s religious studies interests when he requested time off to participate in the University’s Pilgrimage: Israel trip. Bell said that as he balanced religious studies and math, he never questioned his decision to major in the former and minor in the latter.

“I think the way that I view the two fields is that they both explain the world, just in slightly different ways,” Bell said. “Part of me gravitates to the religious studies part of things. But then there’s another part of me that puts an emphasis on logic and rationality, and that’s the part of me that gravitates to the math.”

So 20 years from now, assuming he is a pastor, what will he remember about his summers with Davis and the other researchers?

“Dr. Davis inviting us into his house, really investing in us — not just to be good mathematicians. He’s been a very strong role model for me just to become that well-rounded individual,” Bell said.