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50 Years of Applied Mathematics at UW

Submitted by Tony I Garcia on August 1, 2019 - 4:43pm

By Bernard Deconinck

When Carl Pearson came to UW from Boeing in 1967, he became a faculty member jointly appointed in the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department in the College of Engineering, and in the Department of Mathematics in the College of Arts & Sciences. Two years later he was asked to co-chair, together with Victor Klee (Mathematics), a university-wide committee exploring the role of applied mathematics at UW, and to make appropriate recommendations. This committee became the Applied Mathematics group in 1972, with Carl as director. Another 4 years later, the group was authorized to start a graduate program. The group became a program in 1982, and a department in 1985 (see the document below). Fred Wan became the department’s first chair, taking over from Bill Criminale who led the group from 1976. At that point there had been a number of close calls that would have precluded our department from ever existing, or that would have made it a very different place for sure. Among these are arguments by Washington State University claiming the prerogative for offering applied mathematics, since it was explicit in the name of their Department of Pure and Applied Mathematics at that point. Another one was the recommendation of an external review committee to have our department placed in the College of Engineering.  Being chair is often frustrating, but I cannot pretend that anything I have encountered reaches the nightmare levels that the early leaders of the department had to deal with! 

Since those early days a lot has happened:

  • The department started its forays in distance education in 1989. It goes without saying that the format this uses has changed quite a few times since then!
  • In 1997, the department became involved with undergraduate education with the ACMS (Applied and Computational Math Sciences) program. As you know, our own undergraduate degrees are hopefully on the books in the near future. 
  • The online MS in Applied Mathematics began in 2007, followed by the Computational Finance and Risk Management Program in 2011.
  • The department typically does well in citations valuing science and scholarship, and it was co-ranked first in the 2010 National Research Council Rankings.
  • In 2013, the confines of the 4th floor of Guggenheim became too limiting, and the department moved to Lewis Hall. 

The department is not a typical applied mathematics department: we do not emphasize analysis and partial differential equations, although these are available for interested students. Rather, the department is structured around the application interests of the faculty and we teach and develop the methods suitable for the investigation of those application areas. Apparently this is working well! Currently, the department has significant expertise in climate science, data science, dynamical systems, financial mathematics, fluids, mathematical biology, medical science, numerical analysis, optimization, partial differential equations, stochastics, and so on. 

The above should make it clear that there is a lot to celebrate. And what better way to celebrate than to put together a workshop + conference, highlighting current departmental strengths, paired with lots of reunion events for those alums who came back for it. 

The celebration began with a two-day student workshop (6/17-18) on the topics of Data Science and Optimization, with lectures by Sasha Aravkin and Nathan Kutz. In the afternoon, the audience members had a choice of different application topics, ranging from cancer research to publishing using Jupyter notebooks. The conference (6/19-21) had 5 outstanding plenary speakers (Peter Schmid, Imperial College London; Chris Jones, UNC; Trachette Jackson, Michigan; Tim Leung and Randy LeVeque, UW), an impressive slate of minisymposia in parallel, and a well-attended poster session. In addition to these traditional conference events, four panel discussions were organized: one panel discussed opportunities for applied mathematics beyond the academic setting (industry, national labs, etc.); a second panel talked about how we can provide opportunities for members from underrepresented groups in applied mathematics; a third one features new approaches to applied mathematics education. The fourth panel featured the available plenary speakers and a few others to discuss future directions in applied mathematics. All panel participants came very well prepared, resulting in a great exchange of ideas. You can watch this panel, and many other conference and workshop-related events on the department’s new YouTube channel. I would be remiss if I did not mention the appearance of Dubs II.  Lots of participants took advantage of this great photo op with UW’s official mascot.

AMATH Staff posing for a picture with Dubs II!

The final event of the week was specifically aimed at those with a connection to the department. We hosted an informal breakfast on Saturday, 6/22, where we were glad to greet so many familiar faces, some we had not seen in a long time. 

I wish to thank the Applied Math staff and all the volunteers who helped make the week’s events such a success! Laurie Feldman coordinated all of the logistics for the event, while PhD student Ryan Creedon managed all the volunteers. Many of these volunteers were current students, but many alums helped out too! It is great to see our alums reconnecting with the Department in so many different ways. We are doing something right! 

Lastly, I want to acknowledge the sponsors of the event. We received a grant from the National Science Foundation, for travel support for plenary speakers and the many students who attended. In addition, the UW’s eScience Institute provided funding, as did SIAM’s Pacific Northwest Section. 

And we are off to the next 50 years!