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The new math
A group portrait
On June 9, in an office with boxes and papers and books strewn about the floor, Professor Sol Friedberg talked about the Arts & Science’s youngest Ph.D. program and related high-growth undergraduate major. The department he chairs, mathematics, was moving the next day from cramped quarters in Carney Hall to the fifth floor of Maloney, yet he could still put his hands on the self-study report from 2007 in which he and others of the faculty had promised to deliver Boston College mathematics “to national and international prominence.” Success has come with surprising speed, and for three considerable reasons: a decision to focus the new Ph.D. program (launched in 2010) on an arc of important theoretical areas of mathematics, namely number theory/representation theory, algebraic geometry, and geometry/topology; the offer (also in 2010) of a new BS degree alongside the existing BA, because the academic strength of recent undergraduates merited it; and the ability to recruit extraordinary new faculty drawn to such challenges, who enjoy teaching, appreciate a friendly, supportive department, and, like Friedberg, believe Boston “has a claim to being the top city in the world” for mathematics.
Some markers of progress so far: As of last fall, the number of undergraduate math majors was 304 (roughly 60/40 BA/BS), compared with 183 in fall 2007. That’s a two-thirds increase. The Ph.D. program, purposely kept small and attentive, is able to be highly selective. This year it will welcome seven students in total—three from Columbia University and one apiece from Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Wesleyan, and Peking University, China’s top research school. The program’s first graduate, David Hansen, Ph.D.’13, was named a Ritt Assistant Professor at Columbia in 2014.
As for the faculty, in the last three years its members have been honored with an unprecedented number of prestigious awards: four Sloan Research Fellowships (given to only 10 early-career theoretical mathematicians per year, “in recognition of distinguished performance and a unique potential to make substantial contributions to their field”); three National Science Foundation CAREER awards (the NSF’s most touted honor for junior faculty); and three Simons Fellowships, for “advancing research in basic science and mathematics.” Two faculty members were named Fellows of the American Mathematical Society, and another was the first recipient of the AWM-Birman Prize, established to “highlight exceptional research in topology/geometry by a woman early in her career.”
BCM assembled nine of the 12 faculty so honored on May 14 for a group photo.