When did you first become interested in Mathematics?
I’ve always had an interest in mathematics and science. Throughout my schooling, my parents supported my participation in math and science contests, including Math Olympiad, MathCounts, The 24 Challenge, ARML, Science Olympiad, Science Bowl. I even went to math summer camps: CTY and the Arnold Ross Mathematics Program at The Ohio State University. Other students got trophies for playing sports—I got trophies for doing math and science!
What was your first real research experience?
As an undergraduate, I did some independent mathematics research in Combinatorics and wrote up the results as my senior thesis. The result was new and it was interesting enough to be written up more formally and published in a mathematics journal. Score!
What inspired you to become a mathematician?
I don’t have one source of inspiration—just a collection of moments in which my mathematical curiosity and creativity were nurtured. This pattern of support motivates me to teach my classes in such a way to inspire my students’ curiosity and creativity. For example, my Math with Mathematica class is a purely project-driven class; for one of these projects, my students are designing and 3D printing mathematical art. By the way, I get a kick out of being called a mathematician. Somehow it feels like being called a superhero!
What challenges have you faced in your education or career?
The biggest challenge was in my first two years of graduate school. I was almost kicked out of the PhD program at the University of Washington after having earned very poor grades the first trimester. I was called into the chairperson’s office and given a strict talking to. I had a bit too much hubris after having done research as an undergrad; I was unprepared for the content and the difficulty of the graduate courses. I worked through it, and I think there was some benevolence from the program when I barely passed my Algebra qualifying exam on the third try.
What do you like best about your present position?
The students of Queens College are wonderful. I ask a lot from them in my classes, and they always surpass my expectations in the quality of work that they do.
Also, the academic freedom bestowed upon me by tenure. I now have the ability to pave my own way forward, be it in what I choose to study, the collaborations I undertake, a recent interest in pursuing mathematical art.
My field of mathematics, Algebraic Combinatorics, is extremely collegial. I feel an ethos of support instead of the tendency toward competition in a number of other scientific fields. This feeling of inclusiveness was fostered by the spiritual leaders of the field, Richard Stanley and Gian-Carlo Rota, and continues to this day.
What has been the most exciting event in your career?
Life is a sequence of events that together makes you who you are. I don’t think of one thing as being more exciting than the rest. It is nice to get articles accepted in a wide variety of journals and speaking in a number of different venues, reinforcing the idea that my research is meaningful to a diverse audience. An especially nice honor was being recognized with the Distinguished Teaching Award by the Metropolitan New York section of the Mathematical Association of America in 2012.
If you could start over again, what would you do differently?
I would probably spend an additional year in graduate school. Graduate school is the one time in your life when it is your job to spend your time learning, basking in the knowledge of the experts in the field. Especially in mathematics, it is the norm to receive teaching or research fellowships when you study for your PhD—people pay you to do math! After you leave and head to the job market, you only learn material as you need it; increasing your breadth of knowledge is not a high priority.
What advice would you give undergraduates thinking about mathematics as a career?
Mathematics is a gateway to many professions. Employers value the reasoning capabilities that students must attain while earning a degree in mathematics. Don’t skimp on the advanced classes. Challenge yourself!!! Taking a math class (any college class, really) is like transporting yourself into the mindset of an expert of the field. Put in the time. Soak up their knowledge. ENJOY!
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