“I was delighted to learn the news from the AMS,” said Trapa, professor and former chair of the Mathematics Department and currently chair of the Physics & Astronomy Department. “I’m grateful to be recognized in this way.”
Trapa has always been fascinated by mathematics, but his interests drifted as an undergraduate at Northwestern University, first to chemistry, then to physics, before finally returning to mathematics. “I realized that the common thread that I enjoyed most about the basic sciences was the underlying math.” Trapa also credits two a couple of math professors—Michael Stein, emeritus professor, and the late Mark Pinsky—who took him under their wing and “really changed the trajectory of my career.”
After a brief stint doing statistical analysis for the Ford Motor Company, Trapa headed to MIT for his Ph.D. “My time at Ford was a lot of fun, but not for the reasons that my bosses would have liked,” Trapa said, adding that the company had a decent mathematics library where he spent most of his time. At MIT, Trapa studied representation theory with David Vogan, Norbert Wiener Professor of Mathematics. Vogan later became a close friend and collaborator. “Working with David has been one of the great honors of my life. I’m constantly learning from him how to be a better mathematician.”
Trapa held postdoctoral appointments at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and at Harvard before joining the faculty at the U in 2001. His most important contributions involve classifying the kinds of symmetry that can appear in physical and mathematical problems, so-called unitary representations of reductive Lie groups. “In the past few years, there have been some beautiful and unexpected developments in the subject that lead in many new directions,” Trapa said. His work in this area has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Security Agency, and the Simons Foundation. Since 2015, Trapa has served as managing editor for the AMS journal Representation Theory.
Outside of his research, Trapa enjoys working with talented students of mathematics. He helped found the Utah Math Circle for high school students, served as its director for many years, and still lectures regularly in it. “The kind of math that students learn in school is often very different from the experience of actually doing mathematics,” Trapa said. “I think it’s important to give young kids a taste of what mathematics is all about.”