UO professor named American Mathematical Society fellow

Algebra equations on chalkboard

Marie Vitulli flew solo during her 35 years as the only female research mathematician at the University of Oregon. Last month she became the ninth UO faculty member to be named a fellow of the American Mathematical Society.

Along the way, she launched the Women in Math Project, a website that has pulled together information about women mathematicians around the world and promotes opportunities for women.

In its citation, the 30,000-member society noted Vitulli’s research efforts in commutative algebra and her service, particularly in support of women, in selecting her among the 52-member 2020 Class of AMS Fellows.

Marie Vitulli

“Winning this award was a very nice surprise,” said Vitulli, professor emerita since 2011. “The American Mathematical Society is the premier research organization for mathematicians. This was a nice recognition for my work.”

Six UO math professors and one from the Department of Computer and Information Science, all men, were named fellows in the society’s 1,125-member founding class in 2013. Another UO math researcher was elected in 2016.

"Marie has been a real pioneer in her career," said Daniel Dugger, head of the Department of Mathematics. "Her selection as an AMS Fellow is a well-deserved recognition of her productive research career and her impressive record of advocacy for women in mathematics."

Vitulli became the department’s first female full professor in 1991. Today, the department has two women in tenured positions. Another two arrive in 2020. The department also has nine female instructors, two female postdocs and one female pro tem instructor.

For Vitulli, math always came easy. She tutored her friends while attending high school in Elmont, New York. While in middle school, she fell in love with the viola, winning a music scholarship to New York’s famed Lincoln Center during her senior year of high school.

She joined the UO in 1976 after earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Rochester and advanced degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. While in college, she also studied at the Eastman School of Music. More recently, she has performed with Eugene’s Riverside Chamber Symphony.

Her Women in Math Project, which began in 1997, features some 1,300 biographies and lists opportunities and workshops. New Scientist magazine and the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education both have praised the website.

Vitulli has published several studies on first jobs for mathematicians. According to recent data published by the American Mathematical Society, she said, women account for 30 percent of doctorates awarded nationwide. However, she noted, women comprise only 12 percent of the full professors at doctorate-granting math departments.

“I think women face more obstacles than men do,” she said. “It has gotten better, but we still have a way to go. At many other major research universities there are still very few women faculty members in the higher ranks.”

Earlier this year, the Association for Women in Mathematics chose Vitulli a fellow. She also funded the Marie Vitulli Graduate Fellowship at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute to annually support an advanced graduate student in a semester of study at the institute in Berkeley, California.

Vitulli’s early research was in algebraic geometry, a field originating in the solutions of systems of polynomial equations and exploiting the intricate connections between the algebraic and geometric properties of its objects. She focused on weakly normal algebraic varieties and seminormal rings — loops, crinkles or other geometric pathologies.

Vitulli also pursued valuation theory, which has ties to both algebraic geometry and number theory. She and math department colleague David Harrison, who died in 1999, established the foundations of a generalized V-valuation theory that aimed to pull together various theories.

Valuation theory, developed in the 1930s, helped to attack the classification problem for fields and better understand their structure. Loosely speaking, Vitulli said, a field is an algebraic system in which you can add, subtract, multiply and divide.

“The V-valuation theory is for commutative rings,” she said. “A ring differs from a field in that you can multiply but you can't always divide. The integers provide an example of such. The word commutative refers to the property that says the order in which you multiply elements of the ring doesn’t affect the product.”

Her research, she said, always focused on understanding and defining possible relationships in mathematical structures rather than specific applications.

“I think I made my contributions, and I’m proud of my work,” she said. “But now I am concentrating my efforts to help more women get into the field.”

Previously named AMS Fellows were: Charles Curtis, Peter Gilkey, William Kantor, Huaxin Lin, Eugene Luks, Gary Seitz and Lewis Ward, all in 2013, and Alexander Kleshchev in 2016. Patricia Hersh, a professor at North Carolina State University who will join the UO math department in 2020, was selected as a fellow in 2016.

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications