‘Building the future of math’

Tushar Das, left, associate professor of Mathematics and Statistics, with UWL students Kelly Emmrich and Hunter Rehm. UWL Mathematics and Statistics faculty are eager to support students interested in pursuing a degree in the field.

How a math prof changed a student’s career goals, connecting her to a team of faculty mentors to prepare for grad school

UWL student Kelly Emmrich remembers the moment she was struck by the beauty of math.

It was a calculus class her freshman year at UWL. She was watching Assistant Professor Whitney George draw lines on white board while explaining the meaning behind derivatives.

Emmrich had never had much patience for math. High school calculus was “unsatisfying.” She was plugging and chugging numbers that didn’t appear to have much consequence. But sitting in George’s class that day, Emmrich began to form an entirely new appreciation for the way math explained so much.

“I remember saying to myself, ‘Ahh, yes, that just makes so much sense,’” recalls Emmrich.

Naturally, Emmrich’s new fascination led to many more questions. She took them to George’s office hours where the two would regularly discuss the layers of meaning behind math equations.

“It was the first time I asked a question to someone who was willing to sit here for 30 minutes and tell me about it,” recalls Emmrich. “In high school, there just wasn’t an opportunity like that.”

Answers to her questions led to more. George says they were the type of questions she would rarely get from a student and it was obvious to her Emmrich was thinking about the problems deeply. One day after a fresh round of questions, George stopped Emmrich and inquired what her major was. When the reply wasn’t math, George smiled, “We need to fix that.”

Emmrich says she thought only a “genius” would set out on a path to become a mathematician — certainly not her. But George’s encouragement led her straight to the dean’s office that day to declare mathematics and begin the work of one day applying to graduate school in the subject.

So far Emmrich, a UWL senior, is well on her way. She took all of the entry level up to 400 level courses in the Mathematics and Statistics Department in a span of four semesters, giving her time to pursue more experiential learning in preparation for graduate school. She has completed one independent study each semester and two undergraduate research experiences in different parts of the country. She has also presented research at numerous mathematics conferences. This summer she attended The Institute of Advanced Study Program for Women and Mathematics, a prestigious and intensive mentoring program for women in mathematics at Princeton, New Jersey. Thousands apply to the program. Emmrich was one of only 10 undergraduates selected.

UWL senior Kelly Emmrich, a mathematics and statistics major, listens intently to a lecture during an intensive mentoring program for women in mathematics in Princeton, New Jersey, this summer. The program included lectures, seminars, and panel discussions on a wide range of topics of interest to women mathematicians. Emmrich called the experience “empowering.” Photo credit: Andrea Kane/Institute for Advanced Study.

Faculty connections make the difference

Emmrich says these opportunities have come to her through UWL faculty connections. George and a team of faculty in the department have rallied around her to make her pursuit of graduate school a success. The first time a group of seven math faculty all crammed together in George’s office to discuss Emmrich’s potential graduate school future, she recalls feeling a bit intimidated, but also amazed. She called home to her mother to say, “Mom, you’ll never believe what happened today.”

But now Emmrich has discovered this level of care is the norm in the Mathematics and Statistics Department. She knows she can walk down the hallway any hour between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. and an instructor will be there to talk to about whatever she needs.

“As an educator, it doesn’t stop with the course content. It goes beyond that,” says George. “Mentoring through life situations or career opportunities — Any time I can help a student out, I will do my best to do so.”

From left, Tushar Das, associate professor of Mathematics and Statistics; UWL senior Kelly Emmrich; and Whitney George, assistant professor of Mathematics and Statistics.

The department spends a significant amount of time teaching and providing intensive mentoring to math majors — especially those who are graduate school bound, says Tushar Das, associate professor of Mathematics and Statistics.

“Just as excited as Kelly gets about seeing connections in mathematics, we get just as excited when we see students catch that fire,” he says.

This support from faculty has led to a rise in the number of students attending graduate school. In the past three years, 15 mathematics majors have been accepted to excellent graduate programs, including UW-Madison, University of California-Los Angeles, University of California-Davis, University of California-Santa Cruz, Iowa State, University of Iowa, Northern Illinois University, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and Bryn Mawr College. And Das has received follow ups from some of the schools asking if the department can send more.

“We are building the future of math,” says Das. “The best part of my job is seeing students succeed. I don’t think anything makes me happier than seeing the next generation of mathematicians and knowing I had a part in it.”

Emmrich says when faculty talk about her pursuing dreams like graduate school they never say “if.” They always say “when.” It has challenged her to think about her abilities in a new way. She aims to become a mathematics professor one day.

“It would be nice to someday make an impact on someone like they made on me,” she says.

During the Institute of Advanced Study Program for Women and Mathematics, participants taught kids about mathematics using fun activities as part of an after-school program. Here Kelly Emmrich works with a child. Photo credit: Andrea Kane/Institute for Advanced Study.

Mathematics opportunities abound

Opportunities Emmrich has found with help from UWL faculty include workshops, conferences and research experience for undergraduates. Here is a list of her experiences so far.

She plans to attend

Development of the first UWL topology course in 20 years

George and Das have taught independent studies in Topology and Geometry every semester for the last two years in addition to their regular teaching loads.

These independent studies, with group sizes ranging from three to nine students, are run as intensive 400 level courses with carefully developed syllabi and course outlines.

Topology, along with Analysis and Algebra, form the three pillars of modern abstract mathematics. The department’s success in teaching and mentoring students through these independent studies have led to the design of a brand new MTH 415 Topology course that will premiere in spring 2018. The course will introduce Topology as an important and fascinating mathematical discipline, as well as demonstrate the utility and significance of topological ideas in other areas of mathematics, science, and engineering. This initiative helped bring the department’s program in line with the recommendations of the Mathematical Association of America for preparing students for higher education in mathematics and allied fields.