New chair is poised to take the School of Mathematics to new heights
Feb 1, 2017 | Atlanta
Rachel A. Kuske took over as chair of the School of Mathematics on Jan. 3, 2017. The first woman to lead the school, she arrives at a time when the school is poised to take the next steps toward greater leadership in mathematics and expanding opportunities for students, postdocs, and faculty.
Kuske was most recently a professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia (UBC). She was chair of the UBC Department of Mathematics in 2007-11. Since 2011, she served as a senior advisor to the provost on women faculty.
“Rachel is a highly accomplished leader as university researcher, educator, and administrator and is renowned for her expertise, energy, experience, and expectations for excellence,” says College of Sciences Dean Paul M. Goldbart. “Not only does she bring to Georgia Tech valuable domain leadership, but she also has a record of commitment to building bridges to related disciplines, especially engineering and the sciences, and she understands well the value of such bridges in the setting of the modern technological university.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Kuske discussed her research, what drew her to Georgia Tech, what’s next for the School of Mathematics, and diversity as part of strategy.
"I work in applied stochastic dynamics, understanding the dynamical processes of phenomena that evolve over time in some complex way, but with some randomness. This area has a range of applications, including optics, neuron signaling, disease cycling, and climate dynamics.
"Mathematics is a great unifier. Mathematicians can look at some behavior, understand the models of that behavior, and boil it down to an abstract framework. Then they modify the framework depending on what they observe.
"They can apply that framework to other phenomena. What’s common with all mathematics is that certain structures to explain certain behaviors in one field can be brought to other fields. As soon as you can reduce something to an abstract framework, you can start look around for things that might fit in the same framework. In this way, mathematics connects fields that otherwise might never speak to each other."
GEORGIA TECH’S APPEAL
"So many things going on at Georgia Tech are of interest to a mathematician, from the viewpoints of applications and the strong quantitative angle. Georgia Tech has a lot of mathematically oriented people across campus.
"I had a job offer here 20 years ago. Although the School of Math and Georgia Tech were already very good then, I turned down the offer. Atlanta was not an attractive city for me at the time. Twenty years hence, Atlanta has transformed.
"Another big draw is the people in the school. In the end they were the ones who really recruited me. They basically said, we’re ambitious, there’s lots of things we want to do, and we hear you’re the person who will help us make it happen. The faculty saying we have a great trajectory and we want you to run with us—that is much more attractive than a head hunter’s call."
"Our faculty members are already leaders in research and education. Their visibility is already very good. The school is on a good trajectory for greater leadership globally. As we continue to hire strongly, recruit top-notch people, and expand our graduate program and our postdoc program, consistent high quality as a global player will naturally follow.
"We can be better in leading at Georgia Tech. Many Georgia Tech units are just hungry for it. We need to figure out how faculty, postdocs, and graduate students can engage fully in opportunities between schools and in other places. In a number of interdisciplinary programs where we play a key role, we can play an even bigger role.
"We should bring more people and resources to Georgia Tech rather than researchers going elsewhere. We want to make Georgia Tech a hub for mathematical activity. Georgia Tech as a hub will put us on the map in terms of recruiting. People will want to be here because great things are happening here.
"We want to transform undergraduate education so that the mathematics major generates options for students, including connections to other academic programs. We want students to know that if they come to the school, they will get a solid quantitative foundation from which they could pursue a variety of paths, at Georgia Tech or elsewhere.
"I’d like to hear from our majors. We have hopes and dreams for the school to support the hopes and dreams of students. We like to make sure those align."
"Generally, diversity is valuable. Strategically, organizations tend to do better when they are diverse and inclusive.
"Diversity is a thread that permeates across and holds up the pillars of research, education, and leadership, just like good governance, effective communications, or robust development activities. Viewed in this way, diversity gets built in everything you do.
"I would like diversity to just be a normal part of operations, without having to think about it. In many cases, however, we have to highlight efforts to help normalize inclusive practices and remind people that diversity is a part of what we do. Recognizing that it can appear in different scenarios, we need to make sure our processes are adapting for it."