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Letter from the Department Head: Reflecting on 37 years here

Professor Whitaker reflects on his time at UMass as he finishes his time as department head.

Professor Whitaker reflects on his time at UMass as he finishes his term as department head.

This is my final year as department head and more significantly as a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at UMass. I am retiring. It has been quite a run, starting here as a young assistant professor in 1987. It is bittersweet, in that I am looking forward to doing new things, but I will truly miss this great department.

Growing up in southern Virginia, I always thought that I could never live anywhere north of Washington, DC. It would be too cold but look where I ended up. I interviewed at UMass and the University of Virginia for tenure track positions as a fresh PhD and received offers from both universities. How could I not choose the flagship university in my home state over a school close to the north pole, as people in the south think. However, the genuine welcoming that I received at my interview at UMass made my decision obvious, even though I still was reluctant moving to the cold. Mathematics departments have been one of the slowest departments to diversify and still struggle with inclusion. Most departments have no blacks and few women. Yet I was pleasantly surprised to see two black (full professor) mathematicians in the department at UMass Amherst during my interview, Don St Mary and Floyd Williamsinfo-icon. Moreover, faculty at UMass were extremely welcoming and interested in my research. In spite of not wanting to be near the north pole, I decided to come to UMass, and in retrospect, it turned out to be a great decision. I knew, implicitly, that my success would be enhanced by being welcomed and supported, as part of a research community. I sensed that this could happen at UMass. Soon after coming to UMass, several faculty members reached out to me for research collaborations. I note especially Bruce Turkingtoninfo-icon who I collaborated with on several important research projects on 2-dimensional turbulence. After my tenure, the department hired an amazing young professor Panos Kevrekidisinfo-icon. He is by nature, a community builder. He is a prolific researcher who forges collaborations with women, URMs, small college professors, undergrads and more, epitomizing inclusive excellence. There is no doubt that Panos’ support has been responsible for the success of many, and the building of community in our department. When Panos arrived, we immediately began many fruitful collaborations that commenced with a project on modeling blood flow in the kidney. We followed with the modeling of angiogenesis: the growth of vasculature induced from growth factors secreted by a tumor. In that research, we engaged a team of 3 young undergrads, resulting in excellent honors theses and a publication. They were Heather Harrington (Full Professor at Oxford and Director at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics), Marc Maier (Head of Data Science at Mass Mutual) and LeSantha Nadoo (Medical Doctor). These are examples of the many talented undergraduates at UMass that I have had the opportunity to mentor. I have also supervised or co-supervised 9 PhD theses, with 4 females and one African American, Idris Stovall, the first African American to receive a PhD from the department.

Around 2017, I felt that my retirement was on the horizon. However, our head Farshid Hajirinfo-icon told me that he was taking a Vice-Provost job in the administration and thought I would be a decent head. This had not crossed my mind much, as it was always described as a thankless job. My ancestors were enslaved, and my parents and I grew up under Jim Crow laws. Given that these opportunities were denied to my ascendents, I felt obliged to consider the head’s job and threw my name into the hat. The process is a blur to me now, but Dean Tricia Serio chose me to be the next department head. There are few African Americans in Math and department heads are essentially nonexistent. Serving as the department head of a major Mathematics and Statistics Department at a top Research I university has allowed me to not only be a role model for young African Americans, but to attempt to use the position to make a difference. I especially wanted to do all that I could to support the underrepresented. I believe in inclusive excellence and that talent is equally distributed amongst all identities. Therefore, if we do not see any Albert Einsteins or Marie Curies or even better among a population, we must be losing talent. When I began the position, I started looking at the webpages at Harvard, MIT, Stanford and other top universities searching for excellent African American postdocs in mathematics that we might recruit. I invited a number of URMs to give seminar talks but recruitment efforts failed as they received offers from higher ranked places. During my time as department head, the number of tenure system women increased from 8 to 13. We have also increased the diversity in tenure track faculty and lecturers. Four women were promoted from associate to full professor. I have tried to put more women in leadership roles, including my Associate Head Anna Liuinfo-icon, who has been a godsend in her support of me and the department. I could not envision a better Associate Head. I could not have done this job without the support of so many in the department. For me, the Head’s job is a collaborative venture, taking advantage of all the department’s talent, to help all realize their goals and dreams.

The research profile of the department has increased tremendously over recent years. We have made many great hires who are not only great citizens and teachers but great researchers. There has been a huge increase in the number and quality of publications. Most have publications in the very top journals, even outside of traditional mathematics, such as Nature journals. Many articles have received significant attention and are highly cited. This rise in research is also reflected in funding. Faculty have garnered extremely competitive research grants at the highest levels. An example is receiving the Phase I TRIPODS grant where we competed and won against the very best universities across the nation. Our funding includes NSF grants, Air Force grants and more recently funding from the NIH with R21 awards and R01 awards (extremely competitive and prestigious). Our faculty have been recognized with prestigious external awards including NSF CAREER Awards, Simons Awards, Fulbrights, AMS Fellows and SIAM Fellows.

Our young tenure track faculty hires are an integral part of our success, and this bodes well for the future of the department. They are not only excellent researchers but excellent citizens and community builders. For example, Owen Gwilliaminfo-icon and Annie Raymondinfo-icon were awarded prestigious NSF CAREER awards but moreover their citizenship is extraordinary. Our young faculty have great ideas and I have had the privilege of doing my best to support them. Annie Raymondinfo-icon had taught classes to inmates at prisons before coming to UMass and wanted to develop a connection at UMass. We got approval from Provost McCarthy and Dean Serio to provide tuition waivers for a course in Finite Math in 2019 that Annie and I co-taught at the Hampshire County jail. Several of our graduate students supported the students as tutors. The course was impactful with many moving quotes in the student evaluations. Annie continues this important work. Led by another fantastic young professor, Maryclare Griffininfo-icon, the department garnered a large NSF S-STEM grant to support and mentor minority mathematics and statistics majors from their junior year through a one-year Master’s degree.

Many have contributed to the success of the department. We have almost a thousand curious undergraduate majors who seem to get better and better each year, going on to great jobs or matriculating to top universities for graduate study. Our visiting assistant professors, almost 20 now in number, and our graduate students add to and energize our research community. I want to especially acknowledge our underappreciated staff whose support is essential to the operation of the department. They have taught me a great deal and their dedication is unmatched. Our lecturers are excellent teachers, and as a group these faculty probably educate more students than any other group at the university, our unsung heroes. Moreover, two of our lecturers have won the highly competitive and very prestigious University Distinguished Teaching Award (Cat Benincasa and Adena Caldeninfo-icon).

I was also fortunate to serve as Interim Dean of the College of Natural Sciences (CNS) for a year. The department owes a huge thanks to Robin Younginfo-icon who stepped up as interim head in my absence. Being an applied mathematician, it was exciting, as Dean, to learn about and support all the great science being done in the college. This was a huge job but at the same time very rewarding. The college contains 13 departments and 2 schools: from departments of astronomy (appreciating black holes) to the school of agriculture (petting sheep). My office was in Stockbridge Hall, and according to my Associate Dean and others, it was haunted. To myself, I thought yes, by my ascendents who were denied anything close to this opportunity. I hoped that I could make them proud, as well as to those living that I might be a role model to.

I am retiring but I am not finished. I want to continue to do some math and science, but also to look for ways to participate in programs to increase the numbers of underrepresented in STEM. I am not sure what will be around the corner, which is the way my life has always played out. As a small boy, I could have never envisioned this marvelous journey that I have taken. I believe that my life’s journey has been a random walk weighted by divine intervention. If I could start all over, I would not change a thing.

Nate Whitaker
Department Head of Mathematics and Statistics