A Word from the Chair, 2021

Submitted by Tony I Garcia on

By Bernard Deconinck

You don’t need me to tell you this was a hard year for us. It was a hard year for everyone, everywhere! We dealt with an ongoing pandemic, social and political unrest, more misinformation than ever before, forest fires and months without rain (Yes, in Seattle!) and lots of uncertainty. Through this, we managed to teach an entire year online, guide a record number of PhD graduates to completion, work with large students in two large MS programs, and start the first full year of our undergraduate programs. However much it seems hard to believe or admit, some good was accomplished this past year, and some practices were implemented that are likely to positively affect our teaching, mentoring and research methods for good. 

The University of Washington has now been online for about 18 months. When the previous academic year started, we were hopeful that perhaps one more quarter of online education was in our future, after which we might return back to normal, whatever that was to mean in a post Covid landscape. After all, case numbers were down, and vaccines were on the horizon. We were too hopeful. Winter numbers rose, and although the vaccines materialized (an amazing scientific achievement, benefitting from years of research preceding Covid), the fight against the logistics of large-scale distribution and misinformation was and is not easily won. Now with a new academic year begun and the University of Washington posting very strong vaccination numbers, we are hopeful that our return to campus will not be short lived. 

And so we are starting a new academic year. In contrast to other years, we are getting acquainted with two classes of graduate students: we have a large class of first year PhD and incoming MS students, but we are also getting to know the second-year students who we never got to know properly last year: we saw them through Zoom, on Gathertown, and on class message boards. This year, we get to meet them in person. So far, I have already encountered the top half of most of their faces. If things keep on progressing, I might see the bottom half of their faces in the near future! For the first time, we are also meeting undergraduates in our majors in person. It is a whole new world! I am not implying this year will be without its challenges: we still have indoor mask mandates and lots of other restrictions, but we are moving in the right direction. 

We are welcoming two new faculty to the department: Associate Professor Jingwei Hu is joining us from Purdue University. She works in the area of numerical analysis and scientific computing, with a special emphasis on kinetic theory. Assistant Professor Bamdad Hosseini is returning to the Pacific Northwest (having obtained his PhD from Simon Fraser University), joining us from Caltech. Bamdad likes to extract meaningful information from data, using methods at the intersection of applied mathematics, probability, and statistics. He is specifically interested in a rigorous understanding of machine learning and using uncertainty quantification. I should also mention that Assistant Professor Eli Shlizerman was promoted to Associate Professor, effective September 16, 2021. Welcome to Jingwei and Bamdad, and congratulations to Eli! More positive faculty news: this past year, Emeritus Professor Randy LeVeque joined Chris Bretherton as a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Returning the favor, Chris is joining Randy as Emeritus Professor, retiring from the University of Washington to fully commit to the scientific leadership of the Vulcan Climate Modeling effort. Chris reminisces about his time at UW here. On a very sad note, Bob O’Malley, former chair of the department and longtime graduate program coordinator passed away on New Year’s Eve 2020. More details about Bob’s great career can be found here. I want to thank all of you who have shared your memories of Bob or have contributed to the endowed scholarship established in his honor, which is to be used to increase the diversity within the department. 

I have only one staff change to report: Becky Beard joined us in a part-time role, as advisor for our undergraduate programs. Becky and the rest of the staff have done an amazing job keeping the department up and running while working from home this past year. Becky and Katherine McDermott, the department’s administrator (who started basically when the pandemic shut down the campus), are looking forward to meeting all members of the department finally in person! The rest of the staff know the members of the department and they have warned Becky and Katherine. Katherine’s thoughts about 1.5 years working from home are available here.

Our department graduated 12 (a record high, to my knowledge) students with PhD degrees, 50 students with MS degrees in CFRM, and 67 students with MS degrees in applied mathematics. And, for the first time ever, we have undergraduate alums: 8 students graduated with a BS in Applied Mathematics, and another 5 with a BS in Computational Science and Risk Management. An overview of our virtual graduation event can be found here. You will find names of graduates, awards given out, etc.  Most of our MS graduates are taking up positions in all kinds of different industries, others join different graduate programs. Our PhD students continue to make us proud as well. Some are going on to postdoctoral positions at great institutions (Yu Chen Cheng, Megan Morrison, Bobby Baraldi, among others), others opt for the teaching route or are now working in positions in government or the private sector. All of them are putting their skills and experience to good use, making a difference.

I have already mentioned the new Bob O’Malley endowment. We continue to rely on private gifts, and I am happy to highlight two additional ones. The first one is from Professor KK Tung, who created a discretionary fund endowment for the department. The second one is a gift from Parametric Portfolio Associates, providing support for a student in the CFRM program who has a demonstrated commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Allow me to advertise the remaining contributions to this newsletter. The DEI committee provides an overview of last year’s activities here. Would it not be great if the DEI committee had nothing left to do? Newly minted Associate Professor Eli Shlizerman gives us a glimpse of his work here. Next, former Postdocs Jason Bramburger and Hannah Choi reminisce on their time in our department here and here, respectively. Jason was with us for only one year and never experienced being in our department in any way but remotely! We have a few contributions from graduate students, and one from an undergraduate. PhD students Ziyu Lu and Obinna Ukogu reflect on a highly unusual and hopefully unique first-year experience here. Undergraduate student Michael Gabalis seems to like being in our department. We did not pay him to write this! Lastly, I want to urge everyone to read the contribution of Alanna Sholokhova, who wrote a frank, honest and wonderful article about dealing with imposter syndrome, self-doubt and the fears that many graduate students face upon joining a high caliber program in a completely new environment. Unfortunately, such experiences are all too common not just at UW but at all graduate programs around the country. The gift to put it in words so eloquently and bravely is far less common. It will benefit everyone if all of us are aware of these experiences, to recognize them in ourselves and to help others when they experience them. 

I am ready for an academic year without Covid restrictions, personal interactions and an actual community in Lewis Hall. That’s not happening quite yet, but we’re making steps in the right direction. We will do our share to avoid any steps backward. We will get there!

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