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2015-16 Newsletter

Lunt Hall

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From the Chair

By Paul Goerss, Chair, Department of Mathematics

The department here at Northwestern University is a rich and diverse community, working together to study and teach mathematics. All of us contribute, each in his or her own way, to the overall project. We are a welcoming group, with an incredibly rich slate of visitors, special lectures, and any number of conferences. It is also an ever-changing and ever-renewing community. One of the great benefits to being Chair of the department is that I get to meet and get to know all these remarkable people. Here is some news about some of them.

Our research faculty is internationally known. This visibility and impact means that we have the privilege of marking many awards. For example, Bryna Kra was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; she has also been awarded a Simons Fellowship, joining Laura DeMarco and Mihnea Popa, who were fellows last year. Steve Zelditch gave an American Mathematical Society Invited Address on billiards and vibrations on drums. New hire Emmy Murphy has been awarded the Birman Prize in Topology and Geometry from the Association for Women in Mathematics. There are Northwestern honors as well: Aaron Naber and Eric Zaslow have both been elevated to named Professorships, an honor bestowed by the University for high-impact research.

Great mathematicians visit as well, both in our weekly seminars and in more exceptional events. Every two years Northwestern awards the Nemmers Prize in math, a prestigious honor given for path-breaking mathematics. This spring, the 2014 winner, Mike Hopkins of Harvard, is in residence, and we’ve announced the 2016 winner: János Kollár from Princeton. We also have three prestigious lecture series each year: Nalini Anantharaman from Strasbourg was the Bellow lecturer, Alexi Borodin of MIT was the Pinsky lecturer, and Gerhard Huisken of Oberwolfach and Tübingen University was the Yamabe lecturer. Parallel to all this is the ongoing emphasis year, this year run by Tuca Auffinger and Elton Hsu, which brings in its own visitors, both individually and in a series of conferences. The emphasis year is a remarkable departmental tradition going back to 1973.

Conferences don’t need to be entirely about research. In the fall we had the first GROW conference designed to introduce undergraduate women to life as a graduate student; it was a remarkable success, tapping into an exciting cohort, and it will be held again in October 2016. The emphasis year is holding a summer school for graduate students as well.

Teaching is equally part of the profession and there is plenty of news there as well. Associate Chair Ursula Porod was promoted to Associate Professor of Instruction this spring. Ursula’s contributions to teaching and departmental administration are numerous and multi-faceted; the department wouldn’t run without her. Santiago Cañez is in his first year as an Assistant Professor of Instruction is slated to take over the directorship of MENU next year. We’ve added Aaron Peterson to the ranks of the APIs, starting this fall. Aaron has been with us for a few years as a Postdoctoral Lecturer and is already an important member of the department.

Another extremely important group for us is the postdocs, who are typically here for three years right after they earn their Ph.D. There are about a dozen Boas Assistant Professors—the research postdocs—and perhaps three or four Postdoctoral Lecturers, whose primary mission is teaching. They are vital members of the department, but by the very nature of these positions, these mathematicians are with us for only a few years. We are always a little sad to see them go, but we take delight in their success: for example, Patrick Allen is now in a tenure-track position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Anna Marie Bohmann has a similar position at Vanderbilt, and Diana Davis will leave us for a prestigious teaching postdoc at Williams.

It is not only the roster of the postdocs which changes. Frank Calegari, one of our number theorists, has moved to the University of Chicago and Martina Bode, our long-time Calculus Director, has taken a position to revitalize the calculus program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. We wish them both the best. There is also renewal: Yifeng Liu, a number theorist, joined us this year. We have also hired two new research faculty: Gang Liu, currently at Berkeley, works in Geometric Analysis, and Emmy Murphy, from MIT, in Symplectic Geometry and Topology. Both offer exciting new directions for us, and we are very pleased to have them with us. 


Incoming Faculty

Gang Liu

Gang's research is in differential geometry and its connections with complex geometry, metric geometry and algebraic geometry. Currently his research interest is in the uniformization conjecture of Yau, together with its related problems, such as the Gromov-Hausdorff limit of Kahler manifolds with curvature lower bound.

Emma Murphy

Emmy Murphy is a geometric topologist, primarily interested in symplectic and contact geometry. She received her BS from University of Nevada, Reno, and her PhD from Stanford University. Prior to coming to Northwestern, she was at MIT as an instructor and later as an assistant professor.

Her work is mostly focused applying tools from smooth topology to contact and symplectic geometry. Much of her work uses tools from h-principles, which are general methods of reducing geometric problems to easier questions in algebraic topology.

Department News

Fellows Elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences

Bryna Kra has been elected as a new member to the American Academy of Arts & Science in the field of Mathematics, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honorary societies recognizing the path-breaking work of accomplished scholars and practitioners.

2016 Joint Mathematics Meetings

Steve Zelditch was an Invited Speaker at the Joint Mathematical Meetings with the Mathematical Association of America and the American Mathematical Society. Zelditch delivered the invited address Chaotic Billiards and Vibrations of Drums in January 2016.

Simons Fellowship in Mathematics

Bryna Kra has been awarded a Simons Fellowship in Mathematics for the academic year 2016-17. The Simons Fellowship provides funding to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics to promote strong collaborations and unexpected breakthroughs through new understandings.

Sandy Zabell Appointed to a Committee of the National Institute of Standards and Technology

Sandy Zabell has been appointed to a DNA Analysis Committee of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), tasked with promulgating forensic science standards and guidelines.

Nemmers Prize Awarded to János Kollár

János Kollár of Princeton University was awarded the Nemmers Prize for outstanding achievements in algebraic geometry and mathematics. János Kollár will deliver public lectures and participate in other scholarly activities at Northwestern during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years.

Kamil Duszenko Award

Kate Juschenko was awarded the Kamil Duszenko Award in Mathematics, granted by the Wrocław Mathematicians Foundation for research in mathematics.

Postdocs Elected as MAA Project NExT Fellows

Silas Johnson and Jason Siefken were accepted by the Mathematical Association of America as a Project NExT Fellow. Project NExT (New Experiences in Teaching) is a professional development program for new or recent Ph.D.s in the mathematical sciences.

Faculty Members Awarded TIMES Fellowship

Silas Johnson and Jason Siefken were awarded the TIMES Teaching Fellowship to support inquiry-oriented teaching in mathematics.

Paul Goerss Received Mentoring Award

Department Chair Paul Goerss received an Award for Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

Graduate Student Nicole Looper Received Award

Nicole Looper received the Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching Award in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Silas Johnson hosts (INTER)^2SECT Mathematics Contest

Silas Johnson, in conjunction with, hosted the (INTER)^2SECT contest for young mathematicians on March 13. Thirty-two middle-school aged students from five schools were in attendance.

Inaugural GROW Conference

In October, organizers Laura DeMarco, Ezra Getzler, and Bryna Kra coordinated the first Graduate Research Opportunities for Women Conference. This weekend long conference devoted to addressing the gender imbalance in mathematics hosted fifty female identified students interested in graduate level studies in mathematics.

Kenneth F. Burgess Professor of Mathematics

Aaron Naber has been named the Kenneth F. Burgess Professor of Mathematics.

Chair to the Board of Lady Managers of the Columbian Exposition

Eric Zaslow was named the Chair to the Board of Lady Managers of the Columbian Exposition for a three year term. This endowed chair was created in 1916 out of funds raised at the Women’s Building of the Columbian Exposition of 1893. It recognizes the work of some of the University’s most esteemed faculty from across the College.

Faculty Promotions

Nir Avni was promoted to Associate Professor. John Alongi was promoted to Professor of Instruction. Aaron Naber and Valentino Tosatti were promoted to Professor.

Mathematics Department Excellence in Teaching Awards

Diana Davis, Aaron Peterson and Ross Sweet were awarded the Mathematics Department Excellence in Teaching Awards for 2015-2016.

Staff Wins Commendation

Staff member Deavon Mitchell was awarded a Service Excellence Commendation by Northwestern University. 


2015/16 Undergraduate Prize Winners in Mathematics

Robert R. Welland Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Mathematics by a Graduating Senior

Michel G. Alexis, Joseph Breen

Honorable Mention for Achievement in Mathematics by a Senior

Josiah Hyun Oh, Alberto Takase

Outstanding Achievement in Mathematics by a Junior

Araminta Gwynne, Samuel Alexander Mossing

Honorable Mention for Achievement in Mathematics by a Junior

Kimberly Anne Clinch, Mohammed Harris Khan

Outstanding Achievement in Mathematics by a Sophomore

Jiaqi Shang

Honorable Mention for Achievement in Mathematics by a Sophomore

Ethan Dlugie, Meng Wu

Outstanding Achievement in Mathematics by a First Year Student

Aidan Thomas Perreault

Excellence in Mathematics by a First Year Student

Megan Marie Agnell, John Bailey Bjornstad, Joseph W. Buzzi, Rainy Che, Thomas Patrick Large, Wung Jae Lee, Ari Joshua Levin, Xiaoyu Liu, Zinan Katherine Liu, Jiayi Lu, Ziyi Lu, Alexander Edward Ortiz, Thomas Arthur Ritz, Robert Burns Smart, Daniel Ari Wilensky

Outstanding Achievement in Advanced Mathematics Classes by a High School Student

Fiona Brady

Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Mathematical Life

Joseph Breen

High Achievement on the William Lowell Putnam Examination

Jiaqi Shang

Excellence as an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant

Michel G. Alexis, Malcolm Spilka Lazarow

Certificate of Recognition for Service as an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant

Michel G. Alexis, Joseph Breen

Undergraduate Program News

By Mike Stein, Director of Undergraduate Studies

As I write this, we are fast coming up to our annual prize ceremony and dinner. Nemmers Prize winner (and NU-triple-alum) Mike Hopkins will be the featured speaker, initiating our undergraduates into the mysteries of the Arf invariant. Once again we have a stellar group of prize winners, from first-years to seniors. For the fourth and last time, we will present a special award to high school student Fiona Brady, who will enroll this coming fall at the University of Chicago. Fiona began with us in Math 291 and 331; she has long since progressed into graduate courses. We’ll miss her!

Among our approximately 55 graduating seniors are 4 – Michel Alexis, Joe Breen, Suchan Oh, and Alberto Takase – who wrote honors theses and are continuing to math PhD programs (UC Irvine, UCLA, Wisconsin, Ohio State). Alberto’s thesis in mathematical logic was supervised by a logician in our Philosophy department. Alberto may have started a trend; next year, another senior will write a math thesis with an outside mentor (in theoretical computer science).

After record large graduating classes of close to 100 in the past two years, we are regressing to the mean with about 55 graduates this year. Nevertheless, the total number of math majors is still above 250.

We are grateful to our graduates who donate to our department. The donations continue to increase from year to year and help fund our awards and many other departmental initiatives. Information on how to make a gift to the Math Department can be found on the back page of this newsletter.

Undergraduate Student Perspective

By Michel Alexis, Undergraduate Math Major

When I began freshman year at Northwestern, I was resolved to keep growing, both as a person and an intellectual. Having always loved mathematics in high school, I feared that if I indulged myself solely in mathematics courses I would limit my overall development, and so I made myself explore those other subjects as well. I took classes in physics and creative writing. I minored in philosophy and computer science. I ran club track. And yet, when I look back on my four years at NU, I can’t help but remark that nonetheless my most significant flourishing moments occurred within the math department.

Academically, my development was fostered by what my peers and I can only call remarkable, passionate instructors. Many of the best professors I’ve had at Northwestern have been in the mathematics program. That quality of pedagogy, combined with the MENU program, not only nurtured my ripening interest for mathematics but allowed myself and others to develop the tools necessary to pursue that interest.

Furthermore, Northwestern’s math department let me do something I never expected to be able to do with my mathematics interest (certainly not in high-school): share it with others. Between the enthusiastic undergraduates, the graduate students, and the approachable faculty, I have been able to talk math to my heart’s content and was inspired countless times by the ensuing conversations. And as an undergraduate TA, I in turn have been able to share that same passion with my own students. I not only thrived as an academic, but as a mentor.

Finally, the connections I’ve made at NU’s Math Department are ones that I will always value. The friends I made in freshman year math class are still some of my closest friends today. My professors and mentors continue to serve me as role models not just for their mathematical achievements, but their overall attitude towards education and learning. When I leave NU this June, I leave as a better, more passionate mathematician.

Feature Article: The Inaugural Graduate Research Opportunities for Women (Grow) Conference


By Emily Kefferstan

On October 23, 2015 the Mathematics Department hosted the first-ever Graduate Research Opportunities for Women (GROW) conference for undergraduate women interested in pursuing graduate work in mathematics.  The conference organized by Laura DeMarco, Ezra Getzler and Bryna Kra of the Department of Mathematics featured panel discussions and lectures on cutting-edge research, and a featured a lecture by renowned mathematician and professor emeriti Alexandra Bellows.  More than fifty female undergraduates from across the country traveled to be a part of the intensive conference focusing on addressing the gender imbalance in mathematics and helping young women continue their academic goals in mathematics.

 “This was not the usual room of undergraduates distracted by texts, emails or social media,” remarked Kra, the chief organizer of GROW. “The students were fascinated by the mathematical presentations, asked deep and thoughtful questions during the panel discussions, and sought out mentors to glean particular information.”

After two days of lectures and activities, participants left with a renewed passion to continue their pursuits in advanced mathematics and higher education.  “I’ve completely abandoned my subconsciously-harbored conception that mathematics is a ‘gentlemen's club’.  I resolutely envision myself pursuing a doctorate and eventual career in pure mathematics and research,” one participant remarked in a follow-up to Kra thanking the GROW committee for helping her feel more equipped to make this goal a reality.

The first GROW conference was a resounding success made possible by the Edith Kreeger-Wolf Endowment, The Graduate School, The National Science Foundation, and members of the Department of Mathematics.  Plans to continue the GROW tradition for a new larger audience of undergraduate women are underway in addition to a new invited Summit Meeting on the broader issues facing women in mathematics.

On October 14, 2016 Lunt Hall will once again open its doors to eighty new undergraduate female identified students to help foster a passion in advanced mathematics to a new generation.  “It is an opportunity for Northwestern to take a leading role in what we hope will be a concerted effort among mathematicians to change our demographics” Kra reports when speaking of the GROW 2015 conference.  A mission the Department of Mathematics is eager and proud to support.

Applications and more information on the GROW 2016 conference can be found at:

Graduate Student News

By Elton Hsu and Valentino Tosatti, Directors of Graduate Studies 2015-2016

Our graduate program had a successful year in 2015-2016.

Ben Knudsen has been awarded an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship, and will be at Harvard University for the next three years. Ben also received the annual Best Thesis Award from the mathematics department, together with Wenbo Sun. The Gelfand Award went to Peng Zhou, while the Best Performance on the Preliminary Examination went to Sean Pohorence.

The Department’s big NSF Research Training Group (RTG) grant “Analysis on Manifolds” has started this year, and we have already seen direct benefits on the graduate program, with graduate students working in analysis (broadly construed) receiving funding for travels to conferences, as well as reduced teaching quarters.

The Big Buddy program is still going strong, with bigger buddies (second-year or up) having lunches with little buddies (incoming graduate students) and discussing with them any possible issues, or just relaxing and having a good time.

Congratulations to Nicole Looper, who received the Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching Award from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and to Robert Chang and Peng Zhou who won the Department Graduate Teaching Assistant Award.

The following graduate students will be graduating this year: Eric Dolores Cuenca, Philip Egger, Chris Elliott, Zili Huang, Ben Knudsen, Robert Legg, Xiaokai Liu, Matthew Mahowald, Richard Moy, and Wenbo Sun.

Our recruitment effort has resulted in a great new class of graduate students: Viktor Burghardt, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (Germany); Kyle Casey, Duke University; Maksym Chaudkhari, Taras Sevcenko University of Kyiv (Ukraine); Xi Chen, University of Rochester; Signe Emalia Jensen, Roskilde University (Denmark); Pax Kivimae, University of California, Los Angeles; Rachel McEnroe, University of Chicago; Grigory Papayanov, National Research University HSE (Russia); Abraham Rabinowitz, Stony Brook University; Xi Sisi Shen, McGill University; John Snadden, University of Western Australia; Junxiao Wang, Zhejiang University (China).

Thanks to the effort of our graduate students, our graduate community remains friendly as ever. We owe our special thanks to Kitty Yang (wine & cheese), Dylan Wilson (last year’s Gelfand Award), and Aron Heleodoro (happy hour).

Interview with Mike Hopkins

Mike Hopkins Full Length Interview