$2.3 million grant will help math department grow and diversify

Woman writing math problem on chalkboard

The UO Department of Mathematics garnered a $2.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation for projects that train and mentor the next generation of mathematicians in Oregon.

In addition, the department hopes to use the money, disbursed over five years, to help increase diversity in the department.

UO math professors Patricia Hersh and Daniel Dugger, who serve as co-principal investigators on the grant, said the money will be spent on undergraduate research projects, supporting summer research for graduate students, hiring more postdoctoral researchers and organizing a handful of conferences.

In addition to Dugger and Hersh, the grant’s principal investigators include UO math professors Nicolas Addington, Ben Elias, Nicholas Proudfoot, Dev Sinha and Ben Young.

Each year, the department chooses as many as 10 undergraduate students to work on research projects under the guidance of faculty members. The projects are meant to spark creativity and facilitate the students’ learning progress rather than push the boundaries of the field, Dugger said, as the complexity of advanced math research is usually beyond the capabilities of undergraduates.

“It’s a chance for them to figure out what math research is like, and to see if they want to actually continue it in graduate school,” he said.

Some grant money will allow graduate students to continue their research over the summer without having to teach, meaning they can devote more time to preparing their theses.

“They do research throughout the year,” Hersh said. “But if you can allow them to do 100 percent research in the summer, that can really help boost their progress.”

The grant will help the department hire more postdoctoral candidates, which Dugger said will both help increase the department’s productivity and allow more collaboration opportunities between tenured faculty members and researchers from diverse backgrounds.

Before the new grant, the math department carried between four and five postdoctoral researchers per year, he said. With the funding, the department will have the capacity to hire several more for the life of the grant.

“In the mathematical sciences, the postdoc period is kind of like an apprenticeship,” Dugger said. “It allows you to expand your research trajectory and write new papers, and to develop the kind of publication record that will help you be competitive for jobs.”

Hersh and Young will use some of the money to organize a twice-yearly conference to help facilitate collaboration among math researchers in the Pacific Northwest. The Cascade Lectures in Combinatorics will connect researchers from other universities in the Northwest. She also plans to invite accomplished mathematicians from institutions around the country to speak.

“The idea is by doing these repeatedly, you can create a community in the Pacific Northwest,” Hersh said. “And by having a conference in the area, it can give our students more role models to look up to.”

Elias and Proudfoot are using some of the grant money to organize a summer workshop and lecture series at the UO on cutting-edge developments in algebra and geometry. The Workshop on Algebra and Representation Theory Held on Oregonian Grounds, also known as WARTHOG, will invite mathematicians from around the country to participate in lectures and exercises over the course of five days in June.

Like other STEM fields, math historically has been dominated by men. But each of the grant-funded projects share a common goal of increasing the presence of women in the math department over time.

By hiring more postdoctoral researchers, providing better support for graduate students and increasing opportunities for research collaboration, Hersh and Dugger want to facilitate a long-term shift toward a more diverse math department that will eventually start to take shape in the coming decades.

“It’s about changing the culture in the department,” Dugger said. “These are changes that are made over 20 or 30 years, so you have to be looking at the long game.” 

—By Cole Sinanian, College of Arts and Sciences