Triangle Lectures in Combinatorics return to Chapel Hill

The Triangle Lectures in Combinatorics is a series of combinatorial workshops held each semester on a Saturday in the Research Triangle region of North Carolina, funded by the National Security Agency and the National Science Foundation. The workshop this spring will be hosted by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on February 22, 2014. It will include four one hour invited talks as well as coffee breaks and ample time for discussions throughout the day. There will also be two related seminar talks on Friday afternoon just prior to the meeting.

More information about the conference can be found at its web site,

Thank you to Prof. Richard Rimanyi for being the department member on the Spring 2014 TLC Organizing Committee.

Undergraduate mathematics competitions

A group of Carolina undergraduates participated in the Virginia Tech Regional Mathematics Contest on October 27th. In total, 663 students participated from 112 schools in 27 different states. Ten students from UNC participated. The contest results were very encouraging, with sophomores Marshall Lochbaum and Yash Agrawal leading the UNC participants, each finishing in the top 60 in the contest, and many other promising results from UNC students.

A similar group of students is currently in their last preparations for the annual Putnam Competition, held each year on the first Saturday in December. Last year’s Carolina team finished 14th in the Putnam, with William Schlieper ’12 earning an individual Honorable Mention in the competition. We have high hopes for this year as well, and wish the best of luck to all participating students.

Special recognition goes to Profs. Justin Sawon and Joseph Cima for mentoring this year’s math competition problem solving seminar, and to Prof. Richard Rimanyi for leading these efforts last year. Thank you also to graduate student Rebecca Glover, who proctored the VT contest exam here this year.


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

2011-12 Recap: New research grants awarded to Mathematics faculty

Following up on the good news in last week’s post about the NSF MRI award to the Fluids Lab, we are overdue to celebrate the variety of new federal research grants awarded to faculty in the Department of Mathematics over the past year.

This list represents only new awards led out of the Department in the one-year period ending June 30, 2012. Importantly, as many such awards are for multiple years, it does not include the many continuing research grants in the Department that were initially awarded in previous years. The list also likely misses some interdisciplinary activities in the Department that are in collaboration with faculty in other departments where the proposal was sent through the other department. Even without these caveats, it is an impressive list for the year.

Where available, hyperlinks to more information about the specific award are provided.

National Science Foundation:

Air Force Office of Scientific Research:

  • Greg Forest & Peter Mucha, Multiscale Mathematics of Nano-Particle-Endowed Active Membranes and Films

Army Research Office:

  • Jim Damon, Comparing Mathematical Models and Experimental Data for Intake Capacity Distributions for Plant Root Structures

National Institute of General Medical Sciences:

Office of Naval Research:

  • Roberto Camassa & Rich McLaughlin, A Desalinization Facility for Stratified Fluid Dynamics Research at the UNC Joint Fluids Laboratory
  • Chris Jones, Data Assimilation and Control in Oceanography

Congratulations to all involved!

Triangle Lectures in Combinatorics

The latest installment of the Triangle Lectures in Combinatorics Workshop meets this weekend at NC State. This NSF-supported biannual conference series was launched by Patricia Hersh of NC State in 2010 with the assistance of Scott Provan from the Department of Statistics and Operations Research at UNC and Ezra Miller of Duke University. These conferences, which have also been held at Carolina and Duke, facilitate interactions not only between combinatorialists from across North Carolina and national visitors, but also with other discrete mathematics interests in other departments. The Workshop was last held in Chapel Hill in Fall 2011, organized by Profs. Prakash Belkale, Robert Proctor, and Richard Rimanyi from the Department of Mathematics, and Profs. Gabor Pataki and Scott Provan from the Department of Statistics and Operations Research.