College Rankings

College Rankings


U.S. News & World Report has released their 2019-2020 National University Rankings. The University of Utah is now ranked No. 1 in Utah, No. 104 nationally, and No. 44 nationally among public universities.

The College of Science fared even better. National rankings for science departments at public universities put Biology at No. 27, Chemistry at No. 18, Mathematics at No. 16 and Physics & Astronomy at No. 37. An aggregate of these rankings puts the College of Science at No. 46 nationally and No. 27 nationally among public universities.

There are many factors used to determine a school’s final ranking in the U.S. News & World Report but one factor that is not considered is cost. When cost is factored, there are few universities that challenge the University of Utah.

U.S. News & World Report does not specifically rank Science Colleges. The college rankings published here are an aggregate of their national department rankings.

 - First Published in Discover Magazine, Fall 2019

 

 

Excellence & Opportunity

 

Excellence.
Opportunity.
For All Of Our Students.


The College of Science is home to a dazzling collection of world-class researchers and research facilities. Our faculty pursue fundamental questions at the forefront of science and mathematics, from global ecology to physics of the subatomic, and all the theoretical and experimental domains in between.  These are the frontiers that will define the most important scientific advances of our time.  Generating more than $40M in annual research expenditures, the College's three departments (Chemistry, Mathematics, and Physics & Astronomy) and its School of Biological Sciences collectively rank 26th among public universities in the US.

We place students on exciting career paths in the fastest growing segments of today's STEM economy.  Innovative educational programs and close faculty-student interactions provide tremendous opportunities for our majors.  You will find our internationally-acclaimed faculty in our lecture halls and at our lab benches working with students.  The value of a University of Utah science education is unsurpassed: our tuition is a fifth of the cost of many of our peers. We provide opportunity to those who cannot afford to pay more for a lesser education.

These are exceptional opportunities for all of our students. We are constantly seeking ways to study and implement best-practices for student success and inclusiveness for the diverse community of learners we serve. You belong here.  We're here to help you succeed.

 

Tino Nyawelo

Finding Refuge in Education

 

by Lisa Potter

On a balmy morning in May, 10 newly graduated high schoolers and their families filed into the Sorenson Arts & Education Complex on the University of Utah campus, greeting one another with excited chatter. The parents beamed with pride—many of their sons and daughters were the first in the family to attend college. Tino Nyawelo, assistant professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, smiled at the crowd, thinking of his own journey to the university against overwhelming odds. He cleared his throat and quickly won over the room.

Nyawelo was addressing the 2018 cohort of the Refugees Exploring the Foundations of Undergraduate Education In Science (REFUGES) Bridge Program. Based in the Center for Science and Math Education (CSME) at the U, the program aims to encourage underrepresented students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education at the university level. The seven-week bridge gives freshmen the opportunity to earn credits toward their degree and provides the funding for their tuition, meals, and housing.

Many of the undergraduates are recruited from the REFUGES Afterschool Program, which has provided tutoring, STEM workshops, and college prep and financial aid classes to more than 200 underrepresented students in Salt Lake City. Nyawelo and community partners founded REFUGES to address the challenges faced by refugee youth, minorities, women, and economically disadvantaged students in Utah schools.

Nyawelo, whose family fled violence at the outbreak of the Sudanese civil war, drew on his own experiences to help build REFUGES from the ground up. He fell in love with physics as a high school student in South Sudan, then left the unrest in his country to pursue graduate studies in Europe. When Nyawelo joined the U faculty, he wanted to pay it forward.

Tino Nyawelo

“I see myself in those kids who are brought here as refugees, maybe haven’t had schooling in the camps, and have no English. It’s such a big transition,” explains Nyawelo, director of REFUGES and of diversity & recruitment for CSME. “I’m so passionate about this because I got a lot of help with my education along the way. Mentors and outreach programs in Sudan linked me to my PhD and post-doc studies, and I didn’t pay a penny for my education. Now, I want to give back.”

Bridging the Gap

During the summer bridge program, the students live in the dorms, go on excursions, and tour research labs together to build a strong sense of community. Through the Department of Mathematics and the U’s LEAP learning community, they take two courses that count toward general education credits. During the academic year, bridge students continue LEAP and engage in internship and research experiences. The small class sizes and supportive instructors and administrators help ease the transition.

“A freshman in college has so many things to keep track of, from general education requirements to registration deadlines, financial aid, etc. It can be pretty overwhelming,” says Allyson Rocks, academic coordinator for CSME, who runs logistics for the summer bridge. “The bridge program is a good way to get used to college life instead of getting it all dumped in one semester.”

Both the REFUGES summer bridge and after-school programs have been part of the CSME since 2013. The partnership was a perfect fit; one of the center’s core missions is to increase access to U STEM programming, says Jordan Gerton, director of the CSME. Yet REFUGES is unique in that it sets nontraditional students up for success as undergraduates long before they begin college applications.

“When students aren’t getting a lot of support at home—their family is working, doesn’t know English very well, doesn’t know the school system—they’re much more likely to fall behind, even if they have talent and determination,” says Gerton. “We can’t change the school system, so REFUGES went outside of school to provide that support to keep them moving forward.”

The summer bridge is funded by the Barbara L. Tanner Second Charitable Support Trust, and the CSME and the College of Science support the salaries of the REFUGES staff. The program’s tutors are mainly paid by grants, including from the Department of Workforce Services and the Sudanese Community in Utah. They also receive contributions from individual donors.

Being part of the U helps the students access an amazing team of undergraduate tutors, many of whom went through the REFUGES program themselves. “We hire those students because they look like the REFUGES students. In my experience, I was always unique in my field of theoretical physics. Most of the time, I was the only black person. That’s hard,” says Nyawelo. “Seeing someone who looks like them gives them confidence. They say, ‘If you made it to the U, and you came, like us, as a refugee, then we can make it, too.’ ”

The After-School Program

Like many bridge participants, Jolly Karungi, a member of the 2017 bridge cohort, has had REFUGES in her life for years. Karungi began the after-school program in 2015, a year after moving to Utah following time in a refugee camp in Uganda. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Karungi, her aunt, and her siblings lived in the camp for three years, then moved to Kampala, Uganda, for another three years before being resettled in Utah.

“When I came here, I didn’t speak any English. I didn’t understand what was going on,” she explains. “I had to catch up. This program helped me a lot.”

The after-school program provides homework tutoring three times per week and includes hands-on STEM workshops for grades 7 through 12. High schoolers take ACT prep courses and financial aid workshops. The program has become a family affair; Karungi’s three younger siblings are participating, and their older brother, Fiston Mwesige, couldn’t be prouder. “They have been through many, many things in the refugee camps. So, when they came here to a completely different system, they needed some guidance to find their way,” says Mwesige. “Now, they spend most of their time thinking about the future, what they can do, how they can help the community, and how they can make the world a better place.”

The years of hard work have already paid off—Karungi recently received a full-ride scholarship to the U from the Alumni Association, and she loved living on campus with her friends over the summer. REFUGES offers more than purely academic support. “People are not just helping you with math and science problems, they’re also helping you with your personal problems,” says Karungi, who is beginning her sophomore year this fall. “It’s the best thing about it. They really care about everyone.”

The REFUGES Afterschool Program helps nontraditional students at two locations: the U campus and the Salt Lake Center for Science Education. This year, all 10 REFUGES high school seniors from the U site were admitted to the U, and seven were offered full-ride scholarships to the U or Westminster College. In all, the group was also offered more than $98,000 in FAFSA scholarships. From the Salt Lake Center for Science Education, 17 seniors were accepted to the U, and the 25 students who completed FAFSA received more than $200,000 in scholarships.

Building Refuges

In 2016, more than 65 million people were forced to flee their homes worldwide, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. Of those, nearly 22 million were considered refugees. Approximately 60,000 refugees live in Utah, the vast majority of whom live in Salt Lake County, according to the U’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

To Nyawelo, the numbers are more than just statistics—many of his friends have resettled in Utah, as well as his wife and her family. While pursing graduate studies in Europe, he flew to Salt Lake City frequently, moving officially in 2007 to join the U faculty.

“I knew a lot of refugees in Utah. Some of them were my classmates in South Sudan. I was lucky—I got a scholarship, I went to university. Some of them decided to leave because of a lot of unrest, and they ended up here in Utah. I felt like I was home,” says Nyawelo.

In 2009, he and other members of the refugee community began noticing high rates of school dropouts. After visiting homes, hosting town hall meetings, and organizing a youth summit, a pattern emerged; many refugee youth come to Utah after being in camps for years with little English and intermittent formal schooling. When they arrive here, the school system places them in a grade based on their age, leaving many feeling left behind.

The partners came up with the REFUGES program to help. After winning a grant from the Refugee Services Office, the program expanded to help other communities experiencing similar problems, such as immigrant populations and economically disadvantaged students. There is nothing comparable to REFUGES, explains Gerton, because both Nyawelo and the Utah refugee community are one of a kind.

“This would not be at all possible without Tino…. He built this with his partners from scratch,” says Gerton. “He comes from one of the key refugee communities on Earth, South Sudan. He also happens to be a scientist who also happens to really want to help the community.”

—Lisa Potter is a science writer for University Marketing & Communications.

History of ACCESS

Since its inception, ACCESS has evolved and now reflects contemporary values and our increasingly globalized society by supporting students from all backgrounds in their pursuit of science and engineering. Originally named the ACCESS Program for Women in Science and Mathematics, established in 1991, with a goal of priming undergraduate women for academic and career success in science disciplines.

ACCESS was created when Dr. Hugo Rossi, Dean of the University of Utah College of Science (91’) and world-renowned mathematician, was inspired by a group of Utah women in STEM careers, and studies that found that women in science had fewer opportunities than men at the time, especially in Utah. In hopes of addressing this inequity, Dr. Rossi submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the creation of a University of Utah program to support young women interested in studying science and mathematics.

Thanks to the work of Dr. Rossi and numerous collaborators, including Carolyn Connell, Colleen Kennedy, Richard Steiner, Jacquelyn Stonebraker, and Christopher Johnson, the NSF proposal was approved and the ACCESS Program for Women in Science and Mathematics was founded. NSF funding for the program ended in 1993, but through support from the University, our community, and private donors, ACCESS continues to thrive and evolve.

The first ACCESS class (‘91) consisted of 20 science students. Since then, each year the ACCESS award has supported an average of 33 students each year. The ACCESS alumni network continues to grow and is now over 800 strong.

The program was re-envisioned in 2018 in response to changing demographic demands and under new directorship. This included establishing partnerships with the College of Engineering and College of Mines and Earth Sciences. ACCESS recruits people from all backgrounds, with a particular interest in supporting first-generation college students and students from varied economic backgrounds. ACCESS seeks students with life experiences, leadership qualities, and/or goals that align with advancing gender equity in STEM fields. The 2018 cohort reflects this value.

The 2018 cohort of 32 students by the numbers:

  • 90% percent of the students qualify for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
  • 30% are first-generation college students

In addition, the program now begins with a newly designed, ACCESS exclusive, summer course, Science in a Changing World (SCI 3000). The curriculum in this “STEAM” (STEM with integration of arts and humanities) based course affords students with an opportunity to consider and learn about global policy, communication and STEM. Research faculty and graduate students from the Colleges of Science, Mines & Earth Sciences, and Engineering, as well as an array of campus and community program representatives participate in instruction.

Changes to the summer curriculum have made it possible to offer the ACCESS award to college transfer students for the first time in its 30-year history. This was a critical change as transfer students represent approximately 30% of the University of Utah undergraduate population (based on 2018 data). As time passes, the ACCESS program will continue to adapt to best suit the needs of the scientific, engineering, and University of Utah communities.

ACCESS works for students today, and the workforce of tomorrow, with a vision of greater inclusion, community and accessibility across STEM fields.

Professor Stacy Firth, Chemical Engineer, and ACCESS alumna (class of 1991), teaching students during Summer 2018.

Ambassadors Wanted

Do you have what it takes to be a College of Science Ambassador? Ambassadors participate in recruitment events including Red White and U day, College of Science events, high school visits, and other STEM recruitment programs, where they assist and communicate with prospective College of Science students.

Ambassadors should be well-rounded individuals with a love for the University of Utah and the College of Science! We are looking for students who have strong interpersonal skills and the ability to work in a team environment.

NOTE: Set aside about an hour because the application does not save your progress if you exit. Be prepared to provide a resume and references.

 

 

Becoming an Ambassador


Eligibility

  • Must be an enrolled, degree-seeking undergraduate in the College of Science
  • Must be in good academic standing with the University of Utah (3.00 GPA or higher)
  • Must be able to commit to a full academic year

Benefits

  • $15 an hour with a minimum of 40 hours a semester (average of 3-4 hours a week)
  • Develop presentation, communication, and leadership skills
  • Gain public relations experience and vital interpersonal skills
  • Broaden networks throughout the University of Utah and the College of Science

Hours

  • Average weekly hours will fluctuate based on the number of programs in which an Ambassador participates, but will likely be less than 4 hours a week. University Ambassadors are permitted to have other jobs, either on or off campus, and are encouraged to be involved in other campus activities—provided that these jobs and activities do not interfere with various dates, duties and responsibilities of being a University Ambassador.

Ambassador Duties

  • Being a passionate representative of the University of Utah and the College of Science at recruitment and campus events, including those held on weekends and evenings
  • Create social media content that targets perspective and current students
  • Advise prospective students and parents about the College of Science academic programs, social opportunities, student life, et cetera
  • Participate in weekly campus tours

Important (Mandatory) Dates:

  • Ambassador Training – February 2020 (Date TBA)
  • Red, White, and U Day – April 2020 (Date TBA)
  • COS Convocation – Thursday, April 30, 2020
  • Science Day – Saturday, November 2020 (Date TBA)

 

 

Student Organizations

COMMUNITY


Scientific innovation and educational excellence requires confident, committed students.

Our student organizations provide peer support through a variety of non-traditional channels.

 

Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM)
https://www.math.utah.edu/awmchapter/

Curie Club
https://chem.utah.edu/community/curie-club.php

oSTEM
https://www.facebook.com/oSTEMUtah/

Undergraduate Women in Physics and Astronomy (UWomPA)
https://www.facebook.com/undergradwompa

Women in Physics and Astronomy (WomPA)
https://www.physics.utah.edu/~wompa/

 

Running with Scissors

Jamie Gagnon

One could argue that the age of genomes is divided between before CRISPR-Cas9 and after CRISPR-Cas9 (commonly referred to as just “CRISPR”). As a Harvard post-doc studying the genes involved in embryo development, James (Jamie) Gagnon remembers in 2012 that “pivotal moment” when these “really nice pair of scissors now easy to make” came on the scene.

“Before CRISPR,” says Gagnon whose interest early on had been more in engineering than biology, “we were all using the earlier generation of genome editing tools. Even so, we were able to determine that after making a mutation in a cell, when it divided, the change that had been made was inherited.”

The new “scissors” rapidly scaled up genome editing, allowing researchers to more easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function. At the time CRISPR was inspiring others to move from the research model of smaller organisms like the c. elegans, a transparent worm made up of approximately 1,000 cells, to much larger ones like zebrafish. “The power of genetics,” Gagnon says, “is that zebrafish are now genetically accessible model of all vertebrates, including humans which share 70 percent of genes with fish.”

Zebrafish Research subjects

The impulse for Gagnon’s current work in vertebrate lineage and cell fate choice happened in Northern Maine, during a winter-mountaineering trip with his friend and fellow researcher Aaron McKenna whom he met while they were undergraduates at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. There in the wilds, not far from Vermont where Gagnon grew up, ensued an extended conversation between the two which started to form a deeply complex but exciting research question.

“If we want to study how embryos grow, we have to do it in a living animal,” Gagnon remembers acknowledging to McKenna. “We knew we needed to do it [research] in live animals, complete and whole. I couldn’t shut up about it for several days,” he says, smiling. “Everyone was mutating genes.” It seems that at the time, and perhaps still to this day, ‘Let’s break a gene and see if you’re right about what it does’, was pro forma.

Zebrafish Scale

Instead, the developmental biologist (Gagnon) and the computational researcher (McKenna) decided to pick up where others had ended (and published), using technology in a creative way to mark cells with a genetic barcode that could later be used to trace the lineage of cells. The two were suddenly using data sets of CRISPR-scissor mutations to figure out how cells actually developed in zebrafish.

Still, the prevailing question for Gagnon the researcher is how does biology build an animal with millions of cells, all sharing information and all shape-shifting at the same time? And how does science then best go about studying that?

How does science turn chaos and cacophony into a symphony that is the marvel of a living organism?

A symphony orchestra isn’t a bad metaphor for the edge of science that Gagnon and his lab and colleagues find themselves standing at. (It helps, perhaps, that his wife Nikki, a trained studio artist, works at the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera.) “For thirty years,” says Gagnon, people have been deciphering the genome code … one of the worst computer codes ever written.” Just how bad is bad? Imagine three billion letters in one long line with no punctuation or formatting.

The Gagnon Lab

Perhaps it’s the engineer in him, but to get at that unwieldy code, he sees his task as finding additional tools to regulate CRISPR activity. These tools include doing base-editing and using self-targeting guide RNAs to facilitate cells themselves making a record of what they’re doing, what they’re listening to, as it were, as they play their own “score” of development. “We want to turn the single, really good sharp knife of CRISPR,” he explains “into a Swiss Army knife” to figure out the score of an organism’s symphonic work.

The micro-scissors of CRISPR that appear to have issued a sea change in genomic studies, he hopes, can be used to “force cells to make notes along the way” of their own developmental journey. “Every time the oboe plays,” he says, returning to the metaphor, “we want the player [the cell] to make a record and journal entry on it.”

Illustration by The Gagnon Lab

“In early embryos, there are multiple languages or instruments being used by a finite number of cells to communicate with other cells and to build an animal,” he continues. To which language/instrument does a cell “listen” to, and what choices (expression) does it make as a result?

In a sense Jamie Gagnon is no longer just trying to “decode” the genome, but to use CRISPR to make a version, readable to humans, of what cells are doing in real time and how. In short he’s looking for the creation of a cell-generated Ninth Symphony, a complex but coordinated record of how development occurred that a Beethoven would be proud to conduct.

It may be dangerous to run with scissors, something parents routinely warn their children of, but it turns out that a really good pair of them can do more than the obvious: they can inspire other technologies that promise to bend the arc of science towards even greater aspirations.

 

by David Pace

- First Published in OurDNA Magazine, Fall 2019

Electrochemistry

Henry S. White - A Positive Force in Electrochemistry

 

Henry S. White

From energy storage and generation to nanoscale 3D battery architectures to the transport of drugs through human skin, Henry White’s research is pioneering and highly imaginative within the field of electrochemistry. His work on nanoscale electrochemistry was groundbreaking and has developed into a significant field of research with various applications. Professor of Chemistry Shelley Minteer commented that White “greatly enjoys complex problems and is the electrochemist to go to when you have complex mass transport phenomena to understand.”

There’s an obvious reason why Henry White is considered one of the most influential and innovative electrochemists of his generation: he wears his passion and thoroughness for research on his sleeve. White maintained a strong research group funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense while serving for six years as Chair of the Department of Chemistry, then five years as Dean of the College of Science. His administrative service was a commitment back to an institution that allows him to do what he loves most: teaching and research.

Henry S. White

Now that he can once again devote all of his time to research and teaching, White is thrilled to be immersed in the frontiers of electrochemistry—asking relevant and innovative questions for our generation’s complex problems. As the Widtsoe Presidential Chair, he continues to train postdoctoral fellows, undergraduates, and graduate students in electrochemistry. The Widtsoe Chair specifically is valuable in providing funding for students to do high risk and truly innovative research that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.

“There are a lot of great questions” in the field of electrochemistry says White. Research isn’t just about solving a problem, it’s about learning how to ask interesting and original questions—something White finds a lot of joy in doing.

“Electrochemistry is a fascinating area of science, and a very diverse area, comprising many fundamental research topics in chemistry, materials science, physics, and engineering. It is also extremely relevant in providing potential solutions to many problems that society faces, especially in providing means for developing sustainable energy sources. I’ve been very fortunate during my career to have had the necessary funding and resources to work on very basic science questions in this area. And I’ve been even more fortunate to be able to work with incredibly talented students and postdocs at the University of Utah, many who have continued to work on electrochemical problems in both industry and academics.”

Dr. Hang Ren, a former postdoc of White’s who is now an Assistant Professor at Miami University in Ohio, focused on electrical measurements on individual DNA molecules trapped inside a protein nanopore while training with White. They were able to trap a single DNA molecule for hours, and watch its motional dynamics, and monitor chemical reactions via the change in electrical current through the protein.

In a second research project, they used platinum electrodes with radii as small as 5 nanometers to measure the nucleation rates of bubbles. They were able to generate a single nanobubble at the electrode surface, measure the nucleation rate, and infer the geometry of the smallest stable bubble that contained as few as 25 molecules. “This is a fundamentally important problem in the field of electrocatalysis, where bubbles are often formed and disrupt the catalytic processes on the electrode,” says Professor Ren.

Dr. Rui Gao, Dr Henry S. White, & Dr Koushik Barman.

White trains his students and postdocs on how to be a researcher, to ask innovative questions, and to be relentlessly rigorous in their approach. As he works with undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdocs, his methods are significantly influencing the next generation of scientists to continue a legacy of research excellence. After training with White for years, Professor Ren affirms that “Henry’s research approach is very  unique. In addition to solving scientific problems  elegantly, he is especially great at asking fundamental scientific questions. He is also highly innovative and very good at exploring new directions in electrochemistry. I was greatly influenced by my postdoc training with him.”

Henry White’s research is often cited by other researchers and is foundational in the fields of electrochemistry and analytical chemistry. “Henry has an uncommon disposition for innovation in undertaking both experimental and theoretical challenges in his research,” says Joel Harris, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. White’s research has been recognized in major awards from the Society of Electroanalytical Chemistry, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the ACS Division of Analytical Chemistry, and the Electrochemical Society. He is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Chemical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

 - by Anne Marie Vivienne
  First Published in Discover Magazine, Fall 2019

 

Commutative Algebra

Can commutative algebra solve real-world problems?

Srikanth Iyengar

“When we first study advanced math, we learn to solve linear and quadratic equations, generally a single equation and in one variable,” said Srikanth Iyengar, Professor of Mathematics at the U. “But most real-world problems aren’t quite so easy—they often involve multiple equations in multiple variables.”

Finding explicit solutions to such equations is generally not feasible nor useful—it’s much more helpful to look for overall structure in the collection of all possible solutions. These solution sets are called algebraic varieties. The word algebraic indicates their origin is from polynomial equations, as opposed to equations involving things like trigonometric and exponential functions. Over the centuries, mathematicians have developed various tools to study these objects. One of them is to study functions on the space of solutions, and algebra is a good way to begin. These functions form a mathematical structure called a commutative ring. Commutative algebra is the study of commutative rings and modules, or algebraic structures over such rings.

Iyengar’s research focuses on understanding these structures, which have links to different areas of mathematics, particularly topology and representation theory.

Iyengar joined the Mathematics Department in 2014. He grew up in Hyderabad, India, and received a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Purdue University. Before joining the U, he taught at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The foundation of commutative algebra lies in the work of 20th century German mathematician David Hilbert, whose work on invariant theory was motivated by questions in physics.

Srikanth Iyengar, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Utah

As a subject on its own, commutative algebra began under the name “ideal theory” with the work of mathematician Richard Dedekind, a giant of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In turn, Dedekind’s work relied on the earlier work of Ernst Kummer and Leopold Kronecker. The mathematician responsible for the modern study of commutative algebra was Wolfgang Krull, who introduced concepts that are now central to the study of the subject, as well as Oscar Zariski, who made commutative algebra a foundation for the study of algebraic varieties.

“One of the things I enjoy about my research is how commutative algebra has so many connections to other things,” said Iyengar. “It makes for rich and lively research. Commutative algebra is continually reinvigorated by problems and perspectives from other fields.” Funding for Iyengar’s research is from the National Science Foundation. The Humboldt Foundation and the Simons Foundation have also provided support.

Commutative rings arise in diverse contexts in mathematics, physics, and computer science, among other fields. Within mathematics, besides functions on algebraic varieties, examples of commutative rings include rings of algebraic integers—the stuff of number theory. Commutative rings also arise, in myriad ways, in the study of symmetries of objects—algebraic topology, graph theory, and combinatorics, among others. One of the areas of physics where commutative algebra is useful is with string theory.

In recent years, ideas and  techniques from commutative algebra have begun to play an increasingly prominent role in coding theory, in reconstructions, and biology with neural networks.  While not everything Iyengar does day-to-day (or perhaps even in the span of a few years) has a direct impact in the field, mathematicians have a way of impacting other areas far from their original source, often decades later. There are many striking examples of this phenomenon. The “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” is well known. The phrase is part of a title of an article published in 1960 by Eugene Wigner, a Hungarian-American mathematician and theoretical physicist.

“I work by thinking about a piece of mathematics—perhaps it’s a research paper or a problem I run into somewhere in a textbook or a talk,” said Iyengar. “This sometimes leads to interesting research projects; at other times, it ends in a dead end. My perspective on research is that it’s more like a garden (or many interconnected gardens) waiting to be explored, rather than peaks to be climbed. Sure, there are landmarks but there’s rarely a point when I can say, Well, this is it—there’s nothing more to be achieved.’’

 

 - by Michele Swaner
  First Published in Discover Magazine, Fall 2019