New grants in the Department

Before too much of the Fall semester gets behind us, it is past time for an update on new grants awarded to faculty in the Department of Mathematics. Faculty continued to do well with new awards in the first half of 2013, with budget uncertainties at the federal level pushing the start dates of some awards into the second half of the calendar year. The good news in newly-started grants over the past nine months includes the following awards:

The above represents only the newly awarded grants that started in this period, adding to the many previously-awarded grants that continue. Congratulations to all involved for the excellent work and important recognition.

Faculty Spotlight: Karl Petersen

The Corollaries today celebrates the one year anniversary of its relaunch in an online format. In our first “Faculty Spotlight” installment in the new format, we celebrate the contributions of Professor Karl Petersen, who steps down this summer from a long stint as our Director of Undergraduate Studies.

After graduating with an A.B. in Mathematics from Princeton University, Karl earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Mathematics from Yale before joining the faculty here at Carolina in 1969. Working in several aspects of ergodic theory, especially those connected with analysis, probability, combinatorics, and information theory, Karl’s research was supported by federal grants for 18 years.  He has also held a variety of visiting faculty appointments internationally, including positions at the Erwin Schrödinger Institute in Vienna, multiple universities across France, and at the University of Chile. Karl says, “It’s great to get out and see colleagues in these places,” noting that such visits allow him to “get new ideas and make progress on these problems.”

Karl’s teaching at all levels and his mentoring of graduate students have both been recognized by awards from the university, including the James M. Johnston Teaching Excellence Award in 1992, and the First Doctoral Mentoring Award in 2006. He has directed 14 Ph.D. dissertations, 8 master’s projects, and 6 undergraduate honors projects, with two graduate students and two undergraduates working with him currently.

In addition to his research and teaching duties, Karl has been the long-standing Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department, serving 2005-2013 in addition to an earlier stint in the position and time served as Associate Chair. In these roles, he has had a strongly positive impact on the continued development of the department’s course offerings, including his contributions to redesigns of Math 110 and 130, the expansion of our use of Webassign in 100- and 200-level courses, and organizing our 2012-13 pilot offering of large sections of Math 118 connected with smaller recitation sections. Karl has also played a key role in our participation with the UNC-BEST teacher training program. Meanwhile, Karl has repeatedly championed our department’s Math Help Center, helping to make sure that it gets the resources needed to continue to effectively tutor students in our courses.

Karl has been the central guiding force participating in, prioritizing, and supervising these diverse activities for our undergraduate students and for prospective Carolina students as well. At the same time, Karl is always quick to recognize and emphasize the critical roles of other people, including, for example, undergraduate student services manager Susan Stedman; Lecturers Debra Etheridge, Mark McCombs, Buffie McLaughlin, Brenda Shryock, Miranda Thomas; and Professor Sue Goodman.

As Karl notes, “Math keeps getting more popular and the sciences keep growing. It’s amazing that we can keep going to meet these demands with small, smart adjustments.”

Carolina Math & Me: Ivan Kirov

Today’s guest post comes to us from Ivan Kirov, who graduated from Carolina in 2010 with B.A. degrees in both Mathematics and Economics. Kirov is now a Credit Trading Analyst with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, for which he was in Chapel Hill last night for a Summer Analyst Presentation Information Session.

Why math?  In 2007, sometime late in a hot Chapel Hill spring, I was asking myself just that.  To an 18-year-old me, mathematics was a series of equations and facts to be remembered; a strange symbolic litany as unknowable as lines of hieroglyphs.  I hadn’t taken a math class for more than two years  (and indeed was quite proud of this).  I’d planned well – my AP credits ensured I wouldn’t have to waste time memorizing my way through any university math.  My passion lay in economics and politics and literature; in understanding the beautiful complexity of the human social endeavor.  Economics in particular fascinated me.

They say that economics is the queen of the social sciences, and in that hot spring I came to understand why: it’s the math.  Barely past Econ 101 I began to encounter differential equations of which I had only the vaguest recollections.  If intermediate undergraduate macroeconomics was giving me so much difficulty, how could I hope to go to graduate school?  How could I hope to do meaningful work in the field?  The cruel logic of academic necessity admitted no shortcuts.  Two months later, I was in summer school Calculus II.

And for a time it was just as I’d remembered it – memorizing tables of integrals and formulae for curvature.  But then sometime in between discrete math and real analysis and differential equations, I came to a startling realization: that wasn’t nearly what mathematical thinking was all about.  In French literature and political economy and microeconomics I found myself thinking in strange new ways.  That’s not the direction of causation, I’d think to myself.  That condition is not sufficient.  This inductive argument can’t stand up to scrutiny.  My math courses hadn’t just taught me what an eigenvector was.  They’d changed the very structure of my thoughts.  Mathematics, it turns out, isn’t some ancient scroll to be committed to memory.  It’s a Rosetta Stone: a tool and a mode of thought that lets us tap human reason in a precise and powerful way.

Precision and internal consistency are at the core of the mathematical way of thinking.   To take a set of principles and carefully advance an argument, to build upon established postulates, to pull apart the Rubik’s Cube of life and puzzle out its intricacies – that is mathematics.  That’s why political scientists rely on game-theoretic models and why bridges can withstand wind shear.  It’s how we can securely send our credit card details to online merchants.  Mathematics isn’t Pythagoras’ Theorem and tables of integrals – it’s a culmination of the human mind.  Lloyd Shapely, one of the two recipients of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Economics, wrote in 1962 that “any argument that is carried out with sufficient precision is mathematical.”  Mathematics is a synonym for human reason.

That appreciation is the core of my UNC Mathematics diploma.  It’s an appreciation that’s widely shared – my UNC Math training gave me the analytical core I needed to be successful in finance.  I got many an interview in my final year just by virtue of my math major.  They may be dry at times, but mathematicians are universally respected.

So, why math?  And why Carolina Math?  Training in mathematics gave me an intellectual framework for life that I’ve found profoundly useful and meaningful: an appreciation for precision, careful thought and intense examination.  And the many brilliant and devoted professors at UNC instilled in me a commitment and passion that’s served me very well both professionally and intellectually.  Among many others, Dr. Goodman’s passion, Dr. Rimanyi’s rigor and Dr. Plante’s perspective  seem to me to be irreplicable.  A curious mind ought to drink deep from the draught of mathematics.  An enterprising one ought to do so at Carolina.

— Ivan Kirov

Mucha awarded Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professorship

Peter Mucha has been named a Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor. These professorships help Carolina support its best teachers and scholars, providing a salary supplement, an annual fund for research, and a one-semester research and study assignment during the five-year term of the award. The late Gordon Gray, who graduated from UNC in 1930, and the estate of Bowman Gray Jr., a 1929 graduate, established the professorships in 1980 in the College of Arts and Sciences to be among the university’s most prestigious awards for excellence in outstanding undergraduate teaching.

This award will help support Mucha’s activities mentoring undergraduate research students, who play key roles in his research group’s development of mathematical and computational methods for the study of networks. Undergraduate research students in Mucha’s group frequently contribute to and even lead published research articles about their work.

Mucha is the second member of the Department to hold this position, joining Professor Sue Goodman, who held the award from 1991 to 1994.