2011 Texas Tech Integrated Scholar
Associate Professor of Mathematics;
College of Arts & Sciences
“The words “integrated scholar” are seen here as being integrated teaching, research, and service. In some sense, I would like to look at the word “integrated” in a bigger and broader context – in the context of integrating physical, spiritual, and intellectual, in the sense that you are an integrated individual. So it's some way that life is a mix of everything. You have to integrate the physical, the spiritual, and the mental completely together."
What is your research objective/interest(s)?
I am interested in using computer simulations, and the mathematics behind those simulations, for problems in engineering. Trying to understand how these functions work in their own right has become more interesting to me. I also am interested in the mathematical education of teachers and how we can use mathematics to attract the next generation into mathematics and science. So that’s research on the fringes of mathematical education.
How do you feel your research impacts the globe?
I think that there is some kind of responsibility, and a tremendous reward, in trying to help people. That’s true even here. If you teach a student and suddenly they understand math or suddenly they increase their confidence, you have actually done something good. If you can do something that provides a bit more resources for kids in Africa, then you’re doing something good. I made connections with schools in Africa and I ended up doing things like I do here: talking to the teachers, improving the mathematical knowledge of the teachers, talking to the kids one on one, and conducting tutoring. It’s perhaps more rewarding than here because they don’t have many textbooks, resources, or qualified teachers. So somebody who comes to them and is willing to give them a little time, talk to them, help, and tutor them, you can really see the dramatic effect it has. When we worked with a school and their average math grade four years ago was 42 percent, and they needed a teacher; we did some fundraising, and we funded $1,000. With that $1,000, we hired a teacher and their math grades went up to 58 percent in two years. Last year, they needed another teacher. We were able to fundraise for them again and also guide them a little bit. Now their math grades have gone up to 72 percent.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I attend a Catholic church but I’m not, shall we say, a very dogmatic person. I just see that this works for me. I feel that making people aware of their spirituality in their lives is a good thing. I’m not pushing anything on anyone. I’m not awfully good myself, but I feel that this is an area in which I can help people. So a combination of mental, physical, and spiritual health is good for people, and it is good if we can encourage them. And of course, going back to the people in Africa, they can’t have any of it if they don’t have the resources. You can’t teach or preach to anybody if they’re hungry. So that’s a compelling motivation that I think, someday, you wish you could create the structures that would have everybody at least fed. But I think education is the way to do that. Don’t give them money to feed themselves because they will waste it. But train them. Train them to understand how food and economics work.
What type(s) of service projects do you enjoy doing?
I suppose one service project I have done here on campus is education as well as service learning, where essentially, you do something that’s related to a course, you do it for the community, the community benefits, and you get some benefit in the course. I did quite a bit in that in placing students as tutors in local schools. I also have been doing a bit of service in the area of sports culture – if you can call that service. It’s a bit like the teaching of math. If you feel that you have an experience, and that experience could help another person, trying to share that experience is rewarding. So whether it’s finding a teacher in Africa, or explaining a math problem, or improving someone in their fitness, you are doing service. I volunteer in various things at church, and I find there, as well, that something which maybe connects people to their spirituality is positive.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a couple of different types of things, in that my original background is very much what we call applied mathematics. I worked on using computer simulations, and the mathematics behind those simulations, for problems in engineering. These were problems of say, fracture. If you have a piece of metal and there is a crack in it, how does the crack propagate? Or if you have a glacier and there is a sudden break in it, there is some kind of a large hole in it, and it starts to move, what happens to the ice? How does the ice move? If you look at the composite material in a car, and the car is vibrating for 10,000 miles, how long does it take it to fall apart? What properties do you have in the composite materials? So, I did a lot of large scale computer simulations of those things. I put the function in the computer simulation and carry out the operation, and do it again, and again, and again, and see what, or if, there is a pattern. And if you see a pattern, you see if the pattern can be repeated, then see if you can find an equation from the pattern, and then see if you can extend the pattern to something else.
I also am very interested in education. One of the key areas of education is the knowledge of teachers. I have become much more interested, in the last ten years, in the mathematical education of teachers. If you can train teachers, then you can influence a whole generation of students. I can go into a high school today and teach ten kids, and maybe they will learn something. But if I teach twenty-five teachers, then I’m impacting 400 kids over the next few years. So the mathematical education of teachers has become a big interest of mine.
What advice do you have for new faculty members on balancing the components of an integrated scholar into their careers (academics, research, and service)?
I would say, first of all, you have to love what you are doing. If you love your subject, your passion is going to come out. And secondly, if you love your students – if you really think that what is important here is that these students learn, not that they will pass, not anything else, but that they will really understand and learn this material, and if you have their interests at heart – your students will like you, and you will be an effective communicator.
You can’t just do it to go through the hoops. When I started as a tenure-track professor, I was scared of the idea of writing grants. But then I started looking at it and I said, "here is a little challenge. I can figure this out." And I started getting a little better at it, and eventually turned out to be successful. Try writing a proposal, try writing a few of them. Don’t get anxious about it. Just do a few of them and your efforts will be respected and rewarded. You might not get a million dollars, but you will make that effort, and I think that’s all that is required. That’s all you can ask of somebody.
It is very important to make sure you get a mentor, a senior mentor in the department. Somebody who has an inside sense of what the department expects of you. Someone who stops you from making some big mistakes early on. Someone who gives advice and says, you shouldn’t do this and you shouldn’t do that. A supporter and a mentor who has been through it is very valuable.
And of course I would say, because I’m an athlete, start every day with a run and it relaxes you. If you do some kind of physical exercise, an hour a day, you will be much more productive.
Born and raised in Ireland.
B.A. in Mathematical Science, University College Cork, Ireland;
M.S.C. in Computer Science, University College;
Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics, University College.