Brilliant Minds and Math Add Up
The 2010 class: (l-r) Front row: Emily Berger, Lauren McGough, Eva Belmont, Marie Monks, Alex Zhai, Joe Gallian Second row: Davie Rolnick,Jeff Manning, Tiffany Cai, Yi Sun, Sam Elder, Nathan Pflueger Third row: Delong Meng, Adam Hesterberg, Krishanu Sankar
UMD Mathematics and Statistics professor Joseph Gallian hosts a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). True to his profession, Gallian describes this summer program for college math students using a list of statistics:
- Of the 152 participants in the Duluth REU program, 105 have gone to graduate school at MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago, Princeton, or Stanford.
- 91 of the participants now have their Ph.D. degrees.
- Nine of the 15 winners of the Morgan Prize, given jointly by three professional organizations for research by an undergraduate, have gone to Duluth REU participants
- In 15 of the 20 years it has been given, a Duluth REU participant has received the Association for Women in Mathematics Alice Schafer Prize.
When Gallian first started this REU in 1977 there were less than five similar programs in the nation. Today there are more than 80.
“It is the most loosely structured of all the similar programs,” said Gallian. “There are no organized sessions where the students will come in a classroom and work. Math is solitary. The students work individually because we treat this program like a mini Ph.D. experience.” This combination of informality and rigorous challenge is so appealing, Gallian gets over 100 applicants a year.
Each student is assigned a different problem to work on over the 10-week session. It is their task to conduct original research on their particular problem and give reports on their progress to the group once a week. Gallian said the assigned problems are “reasonable to solve.” While some students go through the program without coming up with a solution, others finish within a few weeks.
Davie Rolnick and Emily Berger
For example, a few years ago Gallian gave a student a problem related to Arrow’s Paradox, the paradox of majority voting. As Gallian explains it: “the problem is to create a set of rules that will avoid voting paradoxes when the voter has three or more options to choose from.” The student tried to “decide how to determine a fair outcome from the ranked preferences of individuals subject to a certain set of criteria,” Gallian said. The problem is named after Kenneth Arrow, who received the 1972 Nobel Prize in Economics. The student didn't solve the problem; Arrow proved no one can; but the student did improve existing results on fair voting schemes and the whole group learned about its complexity that summer.
“This program helps the UMD math department promote undergraduate research,” said Gallian. “Because of this program UMD is very well known across the country.” In addition to the 10 undergraduate participants this year, alumni are invited back as visitors to help assist the students with research. The visitors usually stay for one or two weeks. One participant has come back to Duluth 23 years in a row.
Gallian devotes time to organizing the program all year. “We usually get over 100 applicants and then I go through and narrow it down to 10 or so students” Gallian said. “I then spend time looking for suitable research problems for the students to work on while they are here.” After the students leave, Gallian continues as their mentor, assisting them in publishing their work.
The program is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Security Agency (NSA).
Two of this year’s students are undergraduates at MIT: Emily Berger, a senior, and Davie Rolnick, a junior. They both said they heard of the program by word of mouth.
“If you are in the type of math that we study, you know about this,” Berger said. When asked what attracted them to Gallian’s program, both Berger and Rolnick had similar responses: “it’s well known and it’s the best.” Berger and Rolnick also enjoy the kind of research being done and the fact they are able to work alone rather than groups. Both agree this allows them to take responsibility and pride in their own problem and as Rolnick puts it, gain a “lovely sense of possession.”
Berger explained why acceptance to the Duluth REU is coveted by brilliant young mathematicians around the country, “I am in a space where I can be most myself…it is totally accepting. Also, there is a general sense of passion in this group.” She said, “Both UMD and MIT are special places because people are openly passionate about the things they love. I thrive in that environment,” she said.
The program has made a considerable impact on Berger and Rolnick and they both would like to come back to the program as visitors. As Rolnick explained, “it’s not a program, it’s an experience.”
Berger agreed, “It’s heaven for young mathematicians.”
ABOUT JOSEPH GALLIAN
Gallian is a Morse Alumni Distinguished University Professor of Teaching in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at UMD. He has made extensive contributions to the mathematical community in the areas of research, exposition, teaching, mentoring, and service. He has authored or edited six books and over 100 articles. He has won both the Allendoerfer and Evans awards for exposition from the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) and was the Polya lecturer for the MAA from 1999 to 2001. He earned media attention in 1991 when he determined the methods used by Minnesota and many other states for assigning drivers' license numbers.
His excellence in teaching earned him the Haimo Award for distinguished teaching from the MAA in 1993 and he was the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Minnesota Professor of the Year in 2003. In addition to teaching math classes, he has taught a Humanities course called the "The Lives and Music of the Beatles" for more than 25 years and a liberal arts course on math and sports.
Gallian's service record in the mathematical community is extensive. Most notably, he served a 2-year term as the President of the Mathematical Association of America starting in January of 2007. In addition, he has been co-director of Project NExT since 1998, Associate Editor of MAA OnLine since 1997, and a member of the advisory board of Math Horizons since 1993.
In 2000, Gallian was named by a Duluth newspaper as one of the "100 Great Duluthians of the 20th Century." Aside from his accomplishments as a mathematics professor, Gallian is well-known for his love of the Beatles and his story-telling ability.
Written by Samantha Lefebvre and Caroline Kennedy. Edited by Cheryl Reitan.