Beyond the Ph.D. Defense and Looking Back

Submitted by Tony I Garcia on

By Kelsey Marcinko

It’s wild to me that I’ve been carrying the title of “Dr. Marcinko” for 3 years, and I am at the beginning of my fourth(!) year as a professor at Whitworth University, my alma mater. (Whitworth is a Christian liberal-arts university on the drier side of Washington state). Enough time has somehow passed so that most of the current Ph.D. students in the Applied Math department are students I never knew. As I reflect back on my time in the department, I remain grateful for the people and the community, as well as the numerous ways that the UW Department of Applied Mathematics prepared me for my current role as a teacher of a diverse range of mathematics courses, an advisor of mathematically-minded college students, and a member of the global mathematics community. 

How my time in UW AMath ended

When the world shut down to “flatten the curve” in March 2020, I returned to my parents’ home in Montana to shut out the world and craft my thesis. My job at Whitworth would begin that next fall, and I needed to devote my full energy towards the final stages of earning my Ph.D. “A couple weeks” of shutdown turned into several months. In that season, my AMATH friends and community gathered as best we could on Zoom, sharing tea across the screens and holding online meetings about math without the energy that comes from exchanging ideas in person. In a context I would never have guessed, the final pieces of my research and writing came together, and I finally returned to Seattle for my Ph.D. thesis defense in August 2020. 

It was a surreal experience to defend my thesis on Zoom, sitting alone in the Frederic Wan conference room in an otherwise-shuttered Lewis Hall, talking into the void of utter silence and black boxes on the other side of the Zoom call. And yet, even in the isolation and distancing of the COVID pandemic, I gathered that evening with classmates celebrating my success at a socially-distanced outdoor picnic! The community support through the end of my time as a graduate student buoyed me towards new challenges to tackle as I moved from Seattle to Spokane, WA and began teaching students at Whitworth one month after my successful Ph.D. defense. (As a side note, the recording of my thesis defense on the department’s YouTube channel has been viewed over 4.8k times! I’m still confused about how so many people found my work on YouTube and chose to watch it…)


In my first year of teaching at Whitworth, I taught a total of 7 different courses ranging from Calculus I to a Signals and Systems course for engineering students to Differential Equations. Including that first year, I have now taught 13 different math courses at Whitworth, and I’ll add the 14th math course to my resume next spring when I teach Calculus II! While earning a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics requires deep expertise in a narrow area, I also remain deeply grateful for the breadth of education that I received at UW. When I teach courses in complex analysis, numerical analysis, linear algebra, mathematical modeling, and others, I regularly refer to my notes and textbooks from my time as a Ph.D. student. I am a better teacher for my students because of the rich knowledge imparted by UW AMath faculty, the breadth of courses that I took, and the wide array of research areas that I was exposed to in conversations with peers and faculty. And I am equipped to engage in interdisciplinary research projects with colleagues who may need a mathematician’s perspective in an area like image processing! 
UW Amath also gave me the gift of discussing mathematical pedagogy and the discipline of teaching mathematics with passionate and gifted peers.  Jake Price Ph.D. (’18) piloted a journal club centered around exploring best practices in teaching college mathematics, and this was a highlight of my time in Amath. Through my time at UW, I worked as a TA with a number of faculty, postdocs, and fellow grad students, learning from their varying approaches. Additionally, the Amath department gave me the opportunity to teach a variety of classes, which undeniably strengthened my resume when I applied for jobs. The reading and conversations from the journal club and the practical experience that I received as an instructor of mathematics have also allowed me to implement active learning methods in my classes at Whitworth and experiment with practices beyond the tradition of lecture-only courses. This experience additionally prepared me to participate in the MAA’s Project NExT, a professional development program for new Ph.Ds.  

Mathematics Community

The Amath department played a crucial role in my identification with the global mathematics community and the development of the connections that I have within that community. While I was a grad student, I attended the MAA PNW Section Meeting twice, including organizing a session of talks! After a hiatus due to the pandemic, I attended the 2023 MAA PNW Section Meeting last March, and I was once again welcomed into a community of mathematicians who share my passion for math and mathematics education. After AMath’s support for me to present at SIAM conferences as a graduate student, I am now thrilled to invite my own students to attend next summer’s SIAM Annual Meeting here in Spokane! My other favorite conference is the International Conference on Mathematical Modeling and Analysis of Populations in Biological Systems (ICMA). My advisor first encouraged me to attend this conference in 2017, and I brought along three other Amath grad students to ICMA in 2019! I then had the honor of being an invited plenary speaker at ICMA VIII in Louisiana last October.

As a professor, I often find myself referencing the work of other mathematicians that I met or heard about while I was at UW. For example, when I talk about my own interests in mathematical ecology, I sometimes share with my students about Boeing Colloquia speaker Andrea Bertozzi’s project that took ideas from models of coyote packs and applied them to gang territories and their social dynamics. I also received wisdom and encouragement from the female Boeing Colloquia speakers who shared a meal with female Ph.D. students (what an incredible opportunity!). Within my own research area, I have been introduced to many mathematicians through my Ph.D. advisors’ connections. I also have the courage to initiate conversations with prestigious and well-known mathematicians now because of the opportunities to connect with this level of mathematician while I was at UW. Additionally, when I talk with my students about the possibilities in their own career trajectories, I can speak about examples of math research and specific mathematicians that I know in places like Fred Hutch, Google, Facebook, American Airlines, government labs, and academia.

Final Thoughts

My first quarter at UW Amath was rough, and I seriously questioned whether I would be able to succeed in the long journey to the end of the Ph.D. program. One particular conversation with Bernard Deconinck, chair of the department, gave me confidence and renewed my perseverance. After I had failed an exam in his class and I was upset with myself and questioning whether I belonged, Bernard told me that the department’s admissions committee believed that every person they selected for the Ph.D. program in Applied Math had the potential to complete a great Ph.D. thesis. Bernard believed in me, even after I had come up short. UW Amath holds high standards for its students -- but more importantly, it provides its students with support, encouragement, and community to learn from our mistakes, to persevere, and to find our own place within the diverse and exciting world of applied mathematics.

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