A Word from the Chair, 2020

Submitted by Tony I Garcia on

By Bernard Deconinck

September 7, 2020

“This was a trying year for the Department. Some of these trials were self inflicted, others were inflicted on us.” These were the opening lines of my contribution to the 2019 newsletter. How trivial the trials of last year look compared to what we have had to endure this year! How we would love to be able to work in the dungeon-like offices available to us last summer in Gerberding Hall! 

The University of Washington was the first university in the nation to move its instruction online, in March 2020, when the Covid-19 outbreak was still in its infancy in the US. The entire spring and summer quarters have been online, and our faculty, staff and students have been in Lewis Hall only sporadically, when it was absolutely necessary to pick something up, for instance. Clearly the pandemic has impacted everyone, but I feel worst for the graduate students: I recall how important the support system provided by my cohort and other graduate students was, as I was trying to navigate towards a PhD. This has been taken away from our current students. Sure, there are substitutes that were not available in the 1990s, such as message boards, Zoom meetings, etc., but I am sure we can all agree that these are just that: substitutes for the real thing of having personal interactions. Of course, the many students in our online programs have been doing this virtual environment education thing forever, but even for them it is different: I am sure their course work has become more tedious and dreary now that for many of them it takes place in the same setting as their day jobs, or even as the school arrangements for their children. As we are figuring out how we can return to a new normal, our department has taken on a prominent role with the modeling and forecasting of the pandemic, as described here by Professors Aravkin and Tung. 

The Department, just like the rest of the University and the nation, has felt the impact of the fight for social justice for Black Lives, and the protests that accompany them to this day. It is an astonishing reality that such protests remain necessary to ensure the long overdue change that is needed to honor the promise of equality for all. 

Let me comment on some academic matters. We did, after several years of paperwork, finally get our two undergraduate programs up and running. Our department now offers a Major in Applied Mathematics and a Major in Computational Finance and Risk Management (CFRM). We admitted our first cohorts of students during spring quarter, and we might even have our first graduates this year! 

Although we had no new faculty arrivals this year, we are delighted that the College and the Provost have signed off on our department searching for two new faculty members this academic year. We are looking forward to welcoming two new high-caliber faculty to the department, but it will be challenging to do this during a pandemic, while almost the entire process might have to be done virtually. Let me highlight some changes with our current faculty, staff and students. This year, Associate Professor Tim Leung (who is also serving as Director of the CFRM program) was promoted to Full Professor. Congratulations Tim! We had some staff changes this year: Erica Coleman joined us in early March as Chair’s Assistant, coming from the Atmospheric Science Department, where she was an Academic Advisor. Unfortunately, Erica felt that returning to an advisor role would allow her to deal better with the challenges posed by the Covid pandemic, and she is leaving us for the Jackson school. A few weeks after Erica started, Katherine McDermott became the Department’s new administrator, joining us from the Department of Construction Management. Katherine’s first full day in the Department was one day before we moved our operations online, and Katherine has hardly met any of us in person! Nonetheless, she’s been doing a great job keeping us afloat under very difficult circumstances. Katherine is taking the reins from Rachel Reichert, who left the department to take up the Administrator role in the Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering Department. 

Our department graduated four students with PhD degrees, 38 students with MS degrees in CFRM, and 68 students with MS degrees in applied mathematics. An overview of our virtual graduation event can be found here. You’ll find names of graduates, awards given out, etc.  Most of our MS graduates are taking up positions in all kinds of different industries. CFRM student Ayushi Dhar tells you about her experiences in the program here and her route to a virtual data science internship at Amazon. Amath MS graduate Bea Stollnitz describes her path through the department here and how teaching was the highlight of her time with us.  Our PhD students continue to make us proud: Matthew Farrell is starting a postdoctoral position at Harvard, Brian de Silva is now at Amazon, Weston Barger is now at Facebook, and Jeremy Upsal will continue honing his teaching skills as an instructor in our department. 

Speaking of instructors in our department, I want to talk about Craig Gin. Craig has been an instructor for us these past three years. He always taught large classes, and one quarter per year he was in charge of Amath301, teaching 500-600 students per quarter. In all these quarters of demanding teaching except one, Craig has obtained the highest course evaluation ratings in the department. Even this past Spring quarter, while teaching 600 Amath 301 students online, Craig received a perfect instructor rating of 5.0! He has also been nominated for a UW teaching award, twice! It is not unreasonable to posit that Craig may very well be the best instructor to ever teach in the department. Unfortunately, Craig is leaving us for North Carolina State University, where he is finally able to solve his two-body problem. This is a major loss for the department, but we wish him all the best! 

Lastly, let me point you to three other newsletter contributions: Tom Trogdon describes how his very unusual first year returning to the department was here, and Hong Qian provides a summary of the panel discussion on the Future of Applied Mathematics, at last year’s 50th Anniversary Conference here. And finally, PhD students Nora Gilbertson and Doris Voina summarizes the activities of the WAMM group, providing mentoring for young women who are exploring their options for continuing on to graduate school and beyond in Applied Mathematics or STEM, more generally. I am delighted to share with you that Professor KK Tung has made a significant additional contribution to the Tung Family Foundation endowment in the department, to ensure the WAMM group and its excellent work will be funded in perpetuity! 

In these Covid days, as state revenues are plummeting, we rely on gifts from private donors more than ever. I have already told you about Professor Tung’s gift. I also wish to acknowledge two new amazing gifts from former chair Frederic Wan, supporting graduate students in the departments. These gifts make such a great impact on the lives of our students and the Department as a whole, and we thank Fred, KK, and all our donors for their gifts. 

Let us hope next year’s newsletter will have a lot of good news to reflect on! In the meantime, stay safe & stay healthy!

Added note: as this newsletter reached its final stages, we were saddened to learn of the passing of Professor Bill Criminale, a longtime member of the department. Bill was instrumental in getting the department started, now over 50 years ago. He was the first chair of the Applied Mathematics Program in 1982,  before we became a department. A longer write-up on Bill will be available in the News section of the departmental webpages in the very near future.