NSF Funding Adds Up

August 25, 2003

Mary Ann Travis
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Math counts. Without it, researchers would have no ability to describe scientific phenomenon.

inside0801_kalka"Mathematics is important in and of itself," said Morris Kalka, professor and chair of the mathematics department, but, in a practical way, it "forms the language of science. So if we don't have a cohort of mathematically trained people, eventually we won't have scientifically trained people."

In the past few decades, the number of Americans studying mathematics has declined. In recognition of these dwindling numbers, the National Science Foundation has turned to Tulane and other universities to reverse this downward trend.

The prestigious independent agency of the U.S. government has awarded Tulane more than $2 million in a five-year grant to which the university will contribute another almost $2 million, for a total of $4 million, to entice more American students to study mathematics and pursue research in the field.

During the last five years, hundreds of proposals have been submitted to the National Science Foundation for such grants and only 35 universities have been awarded them. Tulane's math department has long emphasized involving undergraduates in research, trying to create a "seamless transition" for those who move on to graduate school.

These efforts fit well with the National Science Foundation's goal of finding ways to foster more appealing and dynamic methods of teaching math. With increased funding from the new grant, more undergraduates will have the opportunity to receive stipends for work on summer research projects, a program the department has offered since 1995.

Although it's called research, Kalka says the approach is "really a method of discovery. It becomes more exciting than just following a course of lectures. You actually have a problem and you work on it yourself." A major aim of the grant is the cultivation of "vertical-integration" mentoring among all levels of mathematicians.

Undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and regular faculty members will work closely together within the department's four basic topic areas--geometry and topology, applied mathematics and scientific computation, probability and statistics, and algebra and theoretical computer science. For example, rather than a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow working on a specific research project with one faculty member, several mathematicians at different levels will work together solving problems and generating synergy within the research groups.

"There will be more people, more activity," said Kalka as he scrambled to find office space for the four new postdoctoral fellows who join the department this fall. The grant supports 12 new graduate students (eight at any given time), while the university will step up its support for graduate students when they teach. With the grant's support, there will be more outside speakers invited to campus and more seminars. Graduate students and undergraduates also will have funds available to travel to academic meetings to present their work.

"This is really something for someone at the beginning of their careers," said Kalka. Math majors at Tulane often find their calling in their first-year calculus class. Kalka expects that as the word gets around about the research exchanges in the math department, more will join the fold. "We hope that once students come here, we can make studying mathematics more attractive to more students."

More research options and mentoring relationships available for everyone in the department will have a particularly positive effect on the three-year postdoctoral fellows, said Kalka. "We think by the time they've finished, they'll have be much better trained and be more competitive in the job market, whichever job market they want to enter, academic or industrial."

Mary Ann Travis can be reached at

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000