From the Chair - July 2020
Dear Alumni, Friends, Colleagues, and Students,
Welcome to the 2019-2020 edition of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics newsletter.
Our department trains mathematicians, statisticians, teachers, actuaries, and data scientists – careers that consistently rank in the top ten on surveys of best jobs. So it’s not surprising that our enrollments are up, but I believe that in addition to the possible job prospects, students continue to find mathematics intriguing, useful, and beautiful.
The year started out as any other. Last fall our classes were full and we welcomed new math majors and graduate students. In September, the department’s Long Lecture featured Professor Carlos Castillo-Chavez of Arizona State University, widely renowned for his work in mathematical biology. In October and January, WSU teams participated in mathematics modeling competitions, and in December, students competed in the Putnam Exam (a problem-solving competition). On February 29 and March 1, 2020, the department hosted the Data Science and Image Analysis Conference of the Pacific Northwest with over 100 participants.
In the second week of March, everything changed. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty and students learned that beginning March 23, and for the rest of the semester, all instruction would be taking place online.
The response from our faculty was inspiring. With about a week’s notice, faculty members had to completely shift their medium of instruction. They worked long hours learning to use software to videoconference and record lectures, and learned to use software for online homework submission and grading. They set up the necessary equipment to make this possible. They quickly learned techniques and practices for online teaching. When we went completely online on March 23, it went very smoothly with only a few tiny glitches.
The response from our students was equally inspiring. They adapted instantly and had no trouble navigating their new virtual classrooms or submitting homework online. Students all seemed determined to continue their progress.
While it is wonderful to be part of a community such as WSU that pulls together when confronted with a challenge, we are very aware that these are times of anxiety, uncertainty, and suffering. Many of our students, and faculty are studying or teaching under far less than optimal situations. Some have difficulty getting an internet connection, while others are sheltering in place with many family members in a small apartment or house. Others have fallen ill, or lost loved ones. We are working hard to take care of each other.
Summer classes are all online. We do not yet know what to expect in the fall.
I hope you enjoy this newsletter. We would be very interested in hearing from you. Please send us a note or an email to let us know of the recent, and even not-so-recent, events in your life and career.
We appreciate our alumni, friends, and all who are associated with the department in some way. You all have contributed to the success of the department and the students we teach.
Charles Moore Professor and Department Chair
Department Hosts Data Science Conference
A sample of the participants
On February 29 and March 1, 2020, the department hosted the Data Science and Image Analysis Conference of the Pacific Northwest. Organized by faculty from WSU, Eastern Washington University, and Gonzaga University, the conference received financial support from the National Science Foundation.
There were over 100 participants from across the U.S. and Canada, including students, postdoctoral researchers, faculty at universities and colleges, and professionals from industry and government – anyone who had an interest in data science, broadly defined. The covered topics included topological data analysis, bioinformatics, learning from remote sensing data, financial and economic prediction, image segmentation and filtering in biomedical imaging, hyperspectral imaging, pattern recognition, shape analysis, image reconstruction, and more.
The first day of the conference featured talks by industry and academic leaders in the field. The second day was devoted to contributed talks, with speakers that included undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and professionals at all stages of their careers.
Professor Elissa Schwartz Educates Worldwide
Department Associate Professor Elissa Schwartz has a passion for increasing the number of women in STEM fields and for promoting her research field of mathematical biology. In recent years she has been involved in a number of domestic and international activities toward these goals.
In the spring of 2017, Professor Schwartz spent time at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town. As part of the Women in STEM Program Committee, she organized workshops, panel discussions, guest speakers, and group discussions on STEM careers to promote retention of women in mathematics. She matched mentor–mentee pairs between professionals and female African master’s students in mathematics, and set up lunches with guest speakers and professionals to meet with trainees for informal career discussion. Participants in the program were from Burundi, Cameroon, Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
In the summer of 2019, Professor Schwartz served as lecturer and small group research facilitator for a ten-day summer school on mathematical biology in Kathmandu. Her role included teaching the basics of mathematical epidemiology to about 50 Ph.D. and master’s students from Nepal, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines, and the U.S. They also spent many informal hours of discussion on the content and applications after the lectures. As a small group research facilitator, she led a group of five students in a research project for about three hours each afternoon. Students completed model development, analysis, and simulation. They learned how to create a poster which they presented at the International Conference on the Applications of Mathematics to Nonlinear Science. Dr. Schwartz also organized the Academic Success Forum where she moderated a panel for students, trainees, and junior faculty to provide career guidance and networking opportunities for mathematicians aiming to reach an international audience.
Professor Schwartz co-directs a mentoring program for the Society for Mathematical Biology. The program pairs mentors with mentees, organizes small working groups, and puts on training webinars for scholars in mathematical biology (students, postdocs, and faculty). In addition the program conducts an early careers workshop and panel every year at the annual meeting of the Society of Mathematical Biology, of which she is a member of the board of directors.
Professor Schwartz has been awarded funding for this coming summer from the Douglas J. Epperson Social Justice fund from the WSU Center for Arts and Humanities for her proposed work on remedying the “Leaky Pipeline” of women in STEM. Her plan includes development of a workshop and forum to connect underrepresented trainees from WSU and abroad (particularly Africa) with professional development opportunities. This joint venture leverages the interdisciplinary faculty of the WSU Program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, other faculty and researchers at WSU with expertise in mathematics and science, and the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.
Dr. Leslie New Models Species Interaction with the Environment
Dr. Leslie New is a faculty member at WSU Vancouver who is working to make statistics an important tool in policy making. She and colleagues have constructed a statistical model that predicts eagle fatalities at wind turbine facilities. This work is used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish conditions for permits to construct wind facilities.
Her work on marine mammals is used by the U.S. Navy. In work funded by the Navy, postdoc Eric Pirotta, together with Dr. New and colleagues, has developed a model of the effects of anthropogenic disturbance and climate change on the survival and reproduction of blue whales. More broadly, Dr. New and her colleagues are working toward the development of a quantitative understanding of how we effect the biological world that we share the planet with.
Renowned Mathematical Biologist Delivers Prophetic Lecture
The fall 2019 Calvin and Jean Long Distinguished Lecture in Mathematics was given by Dr. Carlos Castillo-Chavez of Arizona State University. Dr. Castillo-Chavez is Regents Professor and Joaquin Bustoz Jr. Professor of Mathematical Biology at ASU. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science as well as the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.
As we found out later in the academic year, his lecture could not have been more timely.
The evening lecture was titled "Emergent and Re-Emergent Diseases in the Times of Ebola". Dr. Castillo-Chavez told his audience about the work of the British physician Sir Ronald Ross in the early decades of the 20th century. Sir Ross demonstrated that mosquitoes carry the malaria parasite and subsequently developed mathematical models for the spread of malaria. Building on this work, his associates William Kermack and Anderson McKendrick developed their mathematical theory which was the source for SIR (susceptible- infected- recovered) models in epidemiology.
Public health responses have more recently been inspired by the concept of threshold or tipping point, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point . This idea refers to the conditions needed for the occurrence of a drastic transition between large and small outbreaks of a disease. How can we define tipping point in this context and use it to develop ways of stopping or ameliorating the impact of emergent or re-emergent diseases? The power of epidemiological modeling is now being greatly enhanced by computer simulations.
In the department colloquium titled "Role of Social Dynamics and Evolution on the Spread and Control of Infectious Diseases ", Dr. Castillo-Chavez described the traditional models of classical mathematical epidemiology. He described work with collaborators on an extension of the traditional framework in the context of the spread of influenza in the presence of cross-immunity. He showed how the influenza model was analyzed and many results were obtained on the possible dynamics of the system. However, traditional models of human diseases do not consider adaptive human behavior. Dr. Castillo-Chavez then described how social dynamics that incorporate the role of human decisions can be included in these models.
Math Learning Center Gets New Leadership
We are excited to welcome Daniel Reiss to our department as the director of the Math Learning Center. Daniel joined the department in fall 2019. Daniel attended Western Washington University where he studied mathematics and physics and continued his education by earning a master’s degree in mathematics from WWU. Daniel then continued working at WWU until he decided to earn his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Idaho. He spent his time studying number theory, specifically Siegel paramodular forms and graduated in the summer of 2019.
Daniel and his wife, Annelise, have called the Palouse home for five years. In their free time they enjoy going camping, backpacking, and exploring the outdoors with their dog. You may also find them teaching Latin dance classes in Moscow, Idaho!
Daniel is focusing on providing support for the tutors and more resources for the students at the Math Learning Center. One of his priorities is to increase the quality of tutoring by having tutors specialize in specific classes or content areas. He is providing additional support for the tutors by giving them opportunities to review content and offering more training for tutors. Daniel has been working on implementing online tutoring for Global Campus and providing more resources for online students.
Daniel faced a major challenge when the University switched to online classes in March. The MLC is open 54 hours per week, and has dozens of tutors; within a few days Daniel and MLC Coordinator Anna Matveeva had to set up a “virtual” MLC. They set up Zoom meetings and rescheduled all the tutors to be available for online “drop-in” tutoring via Zoom. This has been running very smoothly, and many students have commented they were impressed with the quick transition and note the MLC continues to provide a valuable service in this new format.
We are thrilled to be working alongside Daniel!
Doug and Michele Bell Have Been Helping Students for 42 Years
Doug and Michele Bell believe the benefit of education is immeasurable. "It has always been our belief that it is education that opens the door to endless possibilities and that everyone deserves the chance to spread their wings and shine." Receiving a Vatsndal Memorial Scholarship when he was a young student studying mathematics at WSU made a deep impression on Doug. Thankful for the scholarship and as a way to provide aid to other students, in 1978 the couple established the Bell Freshman Mathematics Scholarship with an initial $200 contribution. Since then, over 50 students have received a Bell Freshman Mathematics Scholarship.
The Bells were both young college students in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Michele had graduated from Central Washington University, taught school, and came to WSU to obtain her fifth-year teaching certificate, while Doug had returned to WSU to complete his graduate degree. As luck would have it they met on a blind date in the fall of 1974. A romance followed and they were married in June of 1975. This was during a time when Washington unemployment rates were in the mid-teens but Houston, Texas, was experiencing an economic boom with an influx of a thousand new people each month. After finishing their schooling at WSU they loaded up their little Datsun 1200 and headed to the great State of Texas, even though they loved the Pacific Northwest and were both Washingtonians by birth. This was also during a time when technology was in its infancy. Doug began a programming career with the Singer-Link Company on the NASA Houston site. Two years later he received a job offer from the Lawrence Livermore Labs in California, so they left behind the sweltering Texas heat for the West Coast. The '80s and early '90s were spent working with both large and small companies in the Livermore area as Doug continued his programming career while Michele worked in litigation and staff support for the Chevron corporation. As the glitz of California began to slowly fade away and the love of Washington began to call them home, Doug found work in the small sleepy town of Bellevue, Washington. Over the next 18 years they watched as that slumbering little town grew into the third-largest city in the Seattle metropolitan area. After retiring from Boeing and Regence BlueShield, they decided to relocate to Olympia, Washington, where Doug could pursue his interest in volunteering with political campaigns, provide adult tutoring, and drive clients to appointments. Michele spent several years volunteering at the local Senior Services Center and now spends as much time as possible reading novels. Life is good, it is relaxed, and they are happy.
Peter Klosterman was a recipient of the Bell Freshman Mathematics Scholarship in 2007. "I am thankful to the Bells for establishing the freshman mathematics scholarship. Receiving it helped influence my decision to switch from an engineering to a mathematics major during my sophomore year. I went on to eventually earn my doctorate and am now a tenure-track professor in the math department at Central Washington University. I enjoy instructing and mentoring prospective secondary teachers. I am also enjoying my life in Ellensburg with my wife and three daughters. I received support from the Bells at a pivotal time when I was deciding my life trajectory. I am also grateful to Doug and Michelle Bell for supporting students like me; especially freshmen. Along with being a financial support, this scholarship was my moral support. By receiving it early in my program it helped solidify my engagement and strengthened my confidence."
Eleanor Grace Jones, the 2015 recipient, recollects "Looking back at my education, I can see how meaningful an experience it was to be in a purposefully crafted environment based on growth and exploration. Thank you Doug and Michele Bell for helping me be a part of that."
Ph.D. Graduates Embark on New Careers
Each of this year’s Ph.D. graduates is heading out to an exciting future.
Math Modeling Teams Compete in Helena
Three interdisciplinary student teams competed in a 24-hour math modeling competition the last weekend of October 2019. They traveled to Helena, Montana, on Friday October 25 and were given two open-ended problems from which to choose at 10 a.m. on Saturday, then had 23 hours to work on their chosen problem, turned in a two-page executive summary at 9 a.m. on Sunday, and gave an oral presentation at 10 a.m. How would WSU students, some of whom had not even met each other before preparing for this competition, fare?
The first problem involved analyzing data from a local hospital. The goal was to present to the hospital administrators a proposed layout where each service should be located within their home building, with sufficient space and minimal travel time for patients. This was not easy, given the data had no descriptors – was the number a patient ID or visit ID? Did OP mean Outpatient or Operation? Data is messy!
The second problem involved developing a strategy for tagging all acceleraptors (fictional character from Jurassic Park; although analogously the acceleraptors could be packs of wolves) on Isla Numbar Island, using darts mounted on drones. The accuracy of the darts is, of course, better at short range; however if the drones got too close to the dinosaur, the acceleraptors would be spooked, causing them to sprint. Battery life, a search algorithm, landscape and the island shape would be key components of the solution.
Team One, consisting of Annie Lu (applied math), India Dykes (bioengineering pre-med), and Madison Neyland (math education), chose the hospital problem. None of them had taken a statistics course where they learned a statistics package. There were over 450,000 data points, which they analyzed using Excel. Needless to say, they learned a lot of Excel in 24 hours – enough to obtain essentially the same recommendations as the other teams (all of whom knew either R or SAS). As one of the hospital problem evaluators said, “they taught themselves enough in the 24 hours to make a great analysis". Great job!
Team Two, consisting of Wendy Yu (chemical engineering) Rebecca Hsieh (bioengineering) and Kayla Miller (applied math), chose the acceleraptors problem. They went down one path, and then sometime between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. decided to change strategies(!). Somehow they managed to pull it all together with a great analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of their model. Their written report was evaluated second best for the acceleraptor problem!
Team Three, consisting of Nikolas Steckley (applied math), Makenna Stadum (math education), and Fiona Quigley (applied math), also took on the acceleraptors problem. In their creative approach, they decided to fly drones high enough not to spook the animals, and then drop darts! They developed strategies for tagging groups taking into account terrains and flushing out the acceleraptors. For creativity and completeness in their strategy, other teams voted their work as the best overall for both problems! Go Cougs!
The students represented WSU proudly, and many of them are now motivated to learn more about mathematics and statistics. In particular, India Dykes says she is now motivated to take a statistics course!
Five Department Members Receive 2020 College of Arts and Sciences Awards
This academic year, our department received more awards than any other department in the College of Arts and Sciences. Our members represent excellence among professors, staff, and students. They were to be honored at a college-wide reception in April, which has been rescheduled to an undetermined date due to COVID-19.
Graduate student Ralph Chikhany received the Excellence in Teaching by a Graduate Student Award. This award recognizes graduate students who exhibit exemplary teaching performance in the classroom.
Undergraduate advisor Molly Clayton received the Excellence in Undergraduate Advising Award. This award recognizes undergraduate advisors who effectively facilitate student decision making, continually provide guidance and support to undergraduate students, and exhibit a respectful, caring, and compassionate attitude toward students.
Associate Professor Sandy Cooper received the Tom and Julie Lutz Science and Teaching Excellence Award. This award recognizes faculty in the sciences who demonstrate exemplary commitment to and excellence in teaching.
Professor Bala Krishnamoorthy received the Interdisciplinary Catalyst Award. This award recognizes a faculty or staff member who has demonstrated a sustained capacity to bring colleagues together across disciplinary and institutional boundaries in service of shared accomplishments in research, scholarly and creative activity, and/or teaching.
Graduate advisor Emily Lewis received the Early Career Civil Service Achievement Award. This award recognizes and honors civil service staff members who exemplify outstanding excellence in performance of duties, possess a commitment to teamwork, and inspire excellence in others unusually early in their professional career.
Rocio Sotomayor Honored for Advancing Equity
Dr. Sotomayor is noted for her work with Latinx student groups. She serves on the Council on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and is a member of the Equity of Student Outcomes Council.
She has been a faculty member at WSU Vancouver since 2014. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru (PUCP) in Peru, a master’s degree from the Instituto Nacional de Matemática Pura e Aplicada (IMPA) in Brazil, and a Ph.D. from the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
WSU Students Tested by Putnam Exam
On December 1, 2019, five WSU students — Rosemary Barrass, Clayton Wahlstrom, and Zachariah Weber from WSU Vancouver, along with Isaac Brown and Jaedin Davasligil from WSU Pullman — participated in the 80th annual Putnam Competition. The 2019 Putnam Competition, taken by 4229 undergraduate students from 570 institutions across the U.S. and Canada, consists of 12 challenging questions, tackled over two three-hour blocks, on topics across the undergraduate curriculum.
The top two WSU scores were earned by Isaac Brown, with 10 points, and Jaedin Davasligil, with 8 points. Grading standards are notoriously rigorous; each question is worth 10 points, but partial credit is awarded sparingly. Any nonzero score is considered a significant achievement.
Congratulations to all students who participated in the 2019 competition and a special “welcome to the Putnam” shout-out to WSU Vancouver for their first participation.
COVID-19 Delays Events
With campus essentially closed beginning March 23, and all instruction online, a number of our favorite spring events could not be held.
On March 23, Professor Don Saari, distinguished professor at the University of California, Irvine, was scheduled to deliver the thirty-ninth T.G. Ostrom lecture. Professor Saari has agreed to come at some future date.
About 12 prospective students from across the country were scheduled to visit campus the weekend of March 27, 28, and 29 to meet with faculty and current students. We were able to accomplish much of what we had planned with a sequence of Zoom meetings, but it wasn’t quite as exciting as the visiting weekend usually is.
On April 3, we had planned to hold our annual scholarship reception, to coincide with Mom’s Weekend. Both were canceled. Students have been informed of their scholarships, but we missed the chance to celebrate their achievements. We will try to hold the event next fall, during Dad’s Weekend, if that will be possible, otherwise, at a later date.
Five of our department members received awards from the College of Arts and Sciences (see this newsletter for the story). They were to be feted at a college-wide reception on April 16, which will now be rescheduled sometime in the future.
Graduation that was to be held May 9, 2020, was rescheduled to August 8, 2020, and has since been postponed again. A ceremony honoring those receiving Chancellor’s medallions at WSU Vancouver, among them department member Rocio Sotomayor, was also scheduled for May 9, 2020, but has been postponed.
So really, we haven’t canceled anything - we’ve just pushed things into the future. We are looking forward to the day when we can get together to honor our students, faculty, and staff for the accomplishments, awards, and recognition they have received.
- Ph.D. graduate Mostafa Rezapour has been selected to receive the Craft Family Scholarship from the College of Arts and Sciences.
- Henry Riely (Ph.D. 2019) has accepted an instructor position at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.
- Clark Kogan and Jave Pascual of the Center for Interdisciplinary Statistical Education and Research (CISER), are co-PIs on a new $98,770 grant from the Oregon Sweet Cherry Commission. The grant is to support processing and management of PNW region data on cherry phenology and cold hardiness, construction of statistical models for sweet cherry bud phenology, prediction of lethal temperatures, and model validation based on weekly field data-collection campaign in the fall 2020 and spring 2021.
- Mathematics major Benjamin Hellwig has been chosen as the College of Arts and Sciences Mathematics and Statistics Outstanding Senior for 2020. Ben plans to continue his education in the Ph.D. program in our department.
- Associate Professor Nikolaos Voulgarakis has received a $275,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop mathematical models to explain how proteins are able to accurately and efficiently read the genetic code stored in DNA molecules. This fundamental research will lead to an understanding of the functions of DNA, help scientists investigate the causes of certain diseases, and advance drug discovery.
- Associate Professor Elissa Schwartz has received a $42,000 grant from the Simons Foundation. The grant will support research in epidemiology, which will combine mechanistic modeling and mathematical analysis to understand dynamical processes arising in infectious disease epidemiology, virology, and immunology. By uncovering key factors leading a virus to spread across a population or outsmart a host’s immune system, effective control strategies including long-lasting therapies and vaccines can be developed to counteract these effects. The development of effective strategies will allow prediction, management and ultimately prevent future disease outbreaks.
- Assistant Professor Yuan Wang has received a $42,000 grant from the Simons Foundation. The grant will support research in the development of data analysis techniques for the biomedical sciences. Structured data objects such as trees, curves, and shapes often contain rich topological and geometrical information. Novel statistical methods will be developed for the effective and robust learning of the structure information, which can then be used to address challenging problems in biomedical research including cancer detection and neuron connectivity learning.
- Assistant Professor Will Hall has received a WSU New Faculty Seed Grant for proposed research in mathematics education. The aim of Professor Hall's project is to improve preservice secondary mathematics teachers’ professional identity by (1) connecting them with education professionals via a regional mathematics education conference and (2) having them explicitly investigate their developing professional identity by conducting an autoethnography on what it means to be a mathematics teacher.
- Professor Bala Krishnamoorthy and Assistant Professor William Hall have been chosen as new members of the Provost's Teaching Academy. As described on WSU's website, "Membership in the Academy is limited to a select number of faculty with academic responsibilities at the university who have records of sustained excellence in teaching and are recognized for innovation and scholarship in teaching and learning. The mission of the Teaching Academy is to provide university-wide advocacy; human capital and expertise; and resources to enable the faculty of Washington State University to involve students in transformative learning experiences."
- WSU Vancouver STEM education faculty member Dr. David Slavit, along with Dr. Kristin Lesseig, led an interactive workshop this spring on "Teaching Mathematics in the 21st Century."
- Instructor Dr. David Allen and Professors Dr. Sandy Cooper, Dr. Marc Evans, and Dr. Libby Knott retired this spring.
- Associate Professor Jave Pascual has been appointed director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Statistical Education and Research. CISER provides support services for WSU researchers in designing data collection protocols and statistical analysis of data.
- Professor Nairanjana (Jan) Dasgupta has been appointed the director of Data Analytics at WSU. The Data Analytics program offers a bachelor of science degree in Data Analytics. The program combines mathematics, statistics, and computer science courses to form the core of the degree. Added to this, students focus on a specialization track in science or business and learn the applications of data analysis to that area. The degree also features a capstone course which gives students the opportunity to work on real-world problems from industry partners.
- Assistant Professor Leslie New, WSU Vancouver, has coauthored “Close encounters of the dolphin kind: Contrasting tourist support for feeding based interactions with concern for dolphin welfare” in ScienceDirect.