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 and dimensions of diversity. 

Originally named the ACCESS Program for Women in Science and Mathematics, ACCESS was established in 1991, with a goal of priming undergraduate women for academic and career success in science disciplines. Today, ACCESS continues to advance the representation of women and gender equity across all dimensions of diversity, with the goal of preparing the next generation of exceptional thinkers and future leaders for success in their science education, and later careers. 

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, the College of Mines and Earth Sciences, and the Department of Communications. This One U model broadens recruiting efforts and helps students to inform their academic and professional goals at the earliest possible stage in their undergraduate education. 

In addition, the program now begins with a new (2018) 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). 

In 2021, the ACCESS Program rebranded as “ACCESS Scholars” to more accurately reflect the program’s values of excellence, leadership, and diversity. Most ACCESS students give back to the student community, make research and engagement a signature part of their undergraduate experience, and go onto graduate and professional schools after graduation. As “ACCESS Scholars” students will readily identify the program as a distinguishing opportunity that recognizes excellence but also encourages and rewards future mentorship. 

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.

Ambassadors Wanted

Ambassadors Wanted


Do you have what it takes to be a College of Science Ambassador?

Ambassadors participate in a wide variety of activities in the College. They mentor small groups of first-year and transfer students majoring in the College of Science. They aid in the recruitment of strong STEM students by visiting high schools, giving tours of our science buildings, and hosting other recruitment events where they work and communicate with prospective College of Science students. They also help plan and execute socials and workshops for current students. Aside from events, our Ambassadors help with our social media presence, welcome new students to the U during Orientation, and staff the front desk of our Advising Office!

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 up to an hour because the application does not save your progress if you exit. Be prepared to provide a resume and answer several short response questions.



Becoming an Ambassador

If you have any questions, please contact Sam Shaw at sam.shaw@utah.edu


Student Organizations


Scientific discovery is a result of collaboration and support.

You have a place in the College of Science. There are several organizations where students can find community, peer support, and resources. Please contact us if you would like your organization listed on this page.


American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES)

In order to increase the numbers of Indigenous North Americans seeking degrees and careers in STEM fields, students must be started on the STEM pathway early. AISES administers many programs, services, and events for pre-college, undergraduate and graduate students designed to increase their access to college and support their success in preparation for careers in STEM fields.

American Chemical Society (ACS)

The University of Utah's ACS Student Chapter is an organization dedicated to encouraging future generations of students to take an interest in chemistry and science.

University of Utah students present exciting chemistry demonstrations to elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the Salt Lake area, as well as provide tutoring services that focus primarily on math and science.

Association for Women in Mathematics

Our goals are to: support, build a community for, mentor, increase interest in mathematics from, encourage, and introduce role models to underrepresented groups in mathematics.

Curie Club

Curie Club is made up of individuals committed to the advancement of science and to creating opportunities for all identities to make an even greater contribution to medicine, scientific research, environmental solutions and entrepreneurial innovation.

Young scientists represent the future for breakthroughs in medicine, environment, new materials, and other discoveries critical to addressing our greatest global challenges. Curie Club was founded to help ensure that all individual scientists are given the opportunity to help shape that future. We welcome, support, and celebrate all identities.

Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA)

Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) Chapter at the University of Utah School of Medicine. LMSA unites and empowers medical students through service, mentorship, and education to advocate for the health of the Latino community.


This group is an association of students at the University of Utah who are interested in STEM fields as well as part of the LGBT community.

Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS)

SACNAS is an all-inclusive community dedicated to supporting diversity and inclusion in STEM fields and fostering the success of scientists from under-represented backgrounds. Our goal is to help these members attain advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in STEM. Come be a part of the vibrant SACNAS community at the University of Utah and help us cultivate a safe and secure scientific community filled with the brightest scientists. We aim to provide a holistic approach to STEM training by organizing opportunities for professional development, cultural programming, resilience training, and a pipeline of support and mentoring within a national network. Be the best U with the University of Utah SACNAS chapter.

Society of Physics Students (SPS)

The Society of Physics Students is a national organization dedicated to promoting an interest in science and physics. We are the local chapter, and you do not need to be a physics major to get involved! All you need to get involved is have an interest in physics!

Undergrad Women in Physics & Astronomy (UWomPA)

We are a community of physics undergraduates at the University of Utah. We strive for equality, community, friendship, and the fervent pursuit of science.

Physics Undergraduate Student Advisory Committee (USAC)

Our Undergraduate Student Advisory Committee (USAC) advises the Department of Physics & Astronomy in matters concerning their undergraduate students. We do this primarily through our participation in the RPT (Retention, Promotion, and Tenure) process for the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

In addition, we occasionally participate in other activities promoting student involvement within the Department. Overall, USAC is an amazing way to be a voice for your fellow Undergraduate students in matters concerning the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

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


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