Finding fulfillment through math: Jack Morris researches self-driving cars for honors thesis

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Morris, center, is pictured with friends on the Sunken Garden. Morris is a senior 1693 Scholar at the College. COURTESY PHOTO / JACK MORRIS

  Jack Morris, a Richmond native, has spent four years in Williamsburg as a devoted mathematics major and computer science minor. Before he joins the rest of the senior class at commencement this May, Morris will cap off a successful college career as a 1693 Scholar, a member of International Relations Club, a Secretariat official at the College of William and Mary’s high school Model United Nations conference and an organizer at a local math competitionOutside of formal extracurricular activities, he also enjoys playing bass guitar in groups with friends and is currently learning how to play the banjo for the Appalachian Music Ensemble.  

In the classroom, Morris has explored his academic passions through an honors thesis; beginningsince last summer, Morris has been working on an honors project, and is still actively researching his topic of ride hailing in cities 

 “I’m working on an honors thesis,” Morris said. “ It let me choose my own research topic, instead of tagging on with a professor’s team and just doing their work. I get to formulate my own project and my own ideas which has been great.”  

Morris’s project is on ride hailing, like Uber or Lyft, except that his research utilizes self-driving cars. This makes it unique from most ride hailing corporations.  

 “I’m trying to figure out how you can best make decisions, and mostly that’s how to pair drivers to riders the best you can to minimize pick up times, to maximize profits, to get a good customer experience, and in general to improve mobility in urban areas,” Morris said. So I designed some simulations over the summer and just coded away everydayevery day, and honestly just had a great time. It was very my own, and I felt very invested in it and very productive.” 

Morris explained that the flaws of other ride hailing systems relate to their prioritization of minimized pickup times in a certain instant. Morris said that this trend can create issues in the long run, as they fail to navigate drivers towards the areas where ride hailing systems predict there will be many future pickups.  

“I use a particular sort of machine learning called reinforcement learning to get some centralized agent to learn the value of a car being in a particular space and time, and then it makes decisions based on that so it’s more forward looking. My system is trying to maximize profits, but my system is actually lowering pick up times, which I think is pretty neat,” Morris said.  

Morris highlighted the significance of undergraduate research in any field that students are fascinated by, even if their passions do not fall under categories associated with traditional research.  

“I think that research is really valuable in the sense that you can take a project that you care about and really invest yourself in it and make change by your own individual efforts,” Morris said. I think that’s an important thing for a person to do, and I think that it’s just you taking a thing, investing, and seeing your efforts make something possible, I think that’s what’s valuable.”  

With regards to being one of the few 1693 Scholars on campus, Morris looks back on his time at the College fondly. He said he was extremely grateful to receive that honor, and he enjoyed being part of the community made up of these scholars.  

It’s a wonderful space, everyone in the program is super kind and super friendly,” Morris saidI could count all of them as my friends. I think a lot of us struggle with saying that we deserve something so good in our lives, because I know we all don’t think so. It’s honestly just wonderful.”  

Upon visiting campus as a prospective student, Morris felt that the College was a perfect fit. He felt as though the students and faculty at the College were kinder and more considerate than he expected. 

People seemed to care about the right things,” Morris saidPeople prioritized the right goals, at least in terms of my goals. They aligned well with me. I remember I was going to play ultimate frisbee with some people at the Day for Admitted Students and I was running lateI ran there and saw ultimate Frisbee going on and I hopped into the game, I caught a discI didn’t recognize anyone there because I had jumped into the wrong game with actual students and not prospective students, but they were like ‘Oh, you can join, it’s cool!’” 

Beyond involvements on campus, Morris enjoys going on runs and walks through Colonial Williamsburg, as well as visiting Duke of Gloucester Street’s seasonal farmer’s markets. Morris is also an annual contender in the Williamsburg Adventure Race. 

We’ve done really well in the past few years,” Morris saidWe won this past year, and we beat President Rowe, who was on a team with the City Manager, I believe, so I felt pretty good.”  

Morris is also an active participant in a local mathematics contest, where Morris applies tactics involved in his major to solve open ended, real life problems.  

“Last year I solved a problem regarding the Louvre,” Morris saidHow do we figure out how tohe evacuate the Louvre as quickly and safely as possible?. 

In the future, Morris is interested in continuing in the field of operations research, which is his specific focus within his math major.  

“In particular I study operations research, which is a field of study that essentially tries to use math tools to make decisions that are ‘optimal, and I enjoy doing it,” Morris saidI’m trying to find a way to apply the same skills into something that I really believe in, that could be in transportation like it is in my research, it could be in agriculture, or health, or energy, or really just about anything because those skills apply really just about anywhere.”  

Ultimately, Morris feels as though the College was the ideal place for him to be for the past four years.  

 “I like the people here a lot, and I love the campus, it’s gorgeous and green,” Morris saidIt just felt like the right fit when I was here.”