Times Three

The InCommon Profile

Mathematics and Computer Science has more new blood than any other department on campus.

Sylvia Forman joined the math faculty in 2001, and this year saw the arrival of Michael Fraboni and Gordon Williams. The computer science end of the department also welcomed a new professor last year, Stephen Corbesero, which makes for four junior and four senior faculty members in this busy section of the Priscilla Payne Hurd Academic Complex, where they have their offices.

The three assistant professors of mathematics represent geographical diversity: Pennsylvania, the Midwest, and the West Coast. Mike attended the University of Scranton as an undergraduate and got his Ph.D. from Lehigh University. Sylvia’s undergraduate studies were at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., and her doctorate is from the University of Iowa; and Gordon, who started out in New England (Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) went out to the University of Washington for his Ph.D.

They follow department custom in having married people who speak the same language. Alicia Sevilla, the department chair, is married to Clifford Queen, an associate professor of mathematics at Lehigh University; Kay Somers’ husband, Bruce, is an engineer, so he’s fluent in math, too.

Sylvia’s husband, Sean, teaches math at St. Joseph’s University, and they live in Philadelphia. Gordon’s wife, Leah Berman-Williams, teaches math at Ursinus College (which happens to be Kay Somers’ alma mater) and they live in Collegeville, northwest of Philadelphia, with their “insanely energetic” dog, Jasper. And Mike’s wife, Trisha Moller, is finishing her doctorate in math at Lehigh.

Mike taught for several terms at Moravian as an adjunct while he was working on his doctorate. Now that he’s gotten it and has become an assistant professor, he and Trisha have moved from the south to the west side of Bethlehem. “I’ve shortened my commute,” he jokes.

It’s not all that unusual to find life partners in the same or a closely related field. After all, if you don’t marry your high school sweetheart, you’re more likely to start hanging around with people in your own subject the longer you stay in school. But all three math professors admit: “It’s hard to find somebody who understands” what they do.

Even so, they don’t sit around home tossing problems at their spouses. “Everyone always says, ‘Do you talk about math at home?’ ” Sylvia says. “I’ve learned more about baseball than Sean has about my field.”

Gordon and his wife are writing a paper together, but it’s because they have the same adviser. “That made it easier to get started,” he says. (Leah also makes a wonderful raspberry pie, which she labeled p at the math department TGIF party in February.)

How they got into math differs. Sylvia planned to major in biology and become a nutritionist. Mike thought he might be a physical therapist or a doctor, but he took a course in chaos theory as an undergraduate, and “that did it for me.”

All three work in areas far more rarefied than what they teach. Two of Sylvia’s articles on commutative rings are in the pipeline for publication. Gordon recently has delivered two talks on Petrie schemes, which are not fraudulent investment opportunities but unusual polyhedra and polytopes. (Lucky for him, he inherited Doris Schattschneider’s collection of polyhedra when he moved into her office.) Mike makes sense of “q-convexity properties of coverings of complex manifolds.”

What they teach is calculus, statistics, abstract algebra, mathematical structures and proof, differential equations, complex variables. All this sounds like pretty abstruse stuff to the numerically challenged, but it’s basic material to those who think in mathematical constructs.

“What you learn in high school isn’t real math,” Sylvia says. “It’s tools. It’s the grammar.”

“It’s more like parsing a sentence than it is English lit.,” says Gordon. “If you’re still struggling to put a sentence together in English, it’s hard to understand a pun.”

Teaching the basics keeps them fluent in the vocabulary and alert for that all-too-common undergraduate disease, mathophobia. “Your students have lots of baggage,” Gordon says.

You’re definitely switching gears,” says Mike. “I don’t find it difficult, personally, and I like explaining things to students.”
Math at an undergraduate institution like Moravian is, first, a fundamental subject for prospective elementary and middle-school teachers; second, a service subject to other majors, such as business, physics, and biology. Sylvia is supervising an independent-study project on knot theory, which has many applications to the sciences, especially as it affects the possibilities of DNA structures and organic chemistry molecules.

Complex variables, one of Mike’s subjects, helps designers of objects with complicated skins, from aircraft to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, break down the surfaces into the sum of all their smaller units.

Gordon is working with Gerard Maynard, assistant professor of art, to revise the syllabus and methods for “Mathematics for Design,” to help art students improve their capacity for abstraction and for visual logic. (Along the same lines, Fred Schultheis, associate professor of mathematics, studied math and music at last summer’s math association meeting. His knowledge may come in useful to students of orchestration or acoustics.)

Sylvia is active in the faculty reading group, which this year is pursuing the topic of “Risk” in the sciences, economics, art, psychology, and literature. And Gordon is helping the campus community confront the issue of war with Iraq by organizing a forum for debate and discussion on Thursday, February 13.

They’re so normal—but the stereotypes persist. Everybody knows that mathematician John Forbes Nash of A Beautiful Mind lost his. And in David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Proof, both mathematical geniuses, father and daughter, suffer from mental illness. Mike asks: “Why does every popular depiction of mathematics show people going nuts?”

February 11, 2003

Times Three:
The InCommon profile is of three junior members of the math faculty.
Wanted, Dead or Alive:
Muscular Dystrophy fund-raiser puts two staff member in "jail."
Datebook:
Campus events calendar.
Gaudeamus:
Achievements of faculty, staff, students.