Let’s get the book club out of the way first. There was quite a bit of interest in reading Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather this holiday season, so, let’s meet to discuss it December 19th or 20th. I’ll put up a post here and maybe even experiment with an embedded chat feature. Does either of those dates work better for people?
My uncle Bill has led a very eclectic life. Born a poor Nebraska dirt farmer, he would try jobs like continuing to farm; bluffing his way into teaching Lotus to inmates; racehorse training; graduate studenting; and running a beef jerky business. But it seems he’s finally found his calling, as a math professor at UT Austin. He just won their Outstanding Teacher Award, which comes with a five-figure prize and a great article in UT News.
He’s not a natural math prodigy, but he is pretty damn persistent. When he started graduate school to defer his student loan payments, he wasn’t doing so well, until a professor pulled him aside and offered him an assistantship.
“That summer I went home and farmed like I usually did. In the fall, I retook the courses, but now everything was clear.” Wow, I get it, he recalls thinking. But something else happened. “Everything in my life changed: The way I worked on cars — I became a way better mechanic. The way I worked with my horses — I finally became smarter than my horses. The way I farmed — everything I did I was better at, not because I saw equations but because of the way my brain started thinking and solving problems. It wasn’t just math problems — it was everyday problems.[…] Everything changed, and I credit it to mathematics. I could solve problems for the first time in my life. Sure, there’s great value in things mathematicians do, but the greater value of mathematics to society is how it changes the way people think about everyday problems, from raising children to working on cars to working with horses.
His humble background, and productive struggle, are probably part of why he’s such a good teacher–he’s a walking advertisement for the growth mindset, and he isn’t shy about it.
A history with farming has led him to focus on applied math in biological systems. He’s always gone where his interests led him–and it’s so wonderful that he’s found, and leveraged into a career, the synergy between them.
But his love of teaching is paralleled by robust research interests, and virtually all of his publications have been in math biology. “For 35 years of my life, I sat on my tractor. That gave me good insights into insects and spiders, because they’re a big part of agriculture.”
One example he gives of math biology involves climate change. Moose populations in New Hampshire are declining because ticks, which in great enough numbers can kill moose, are thriving due to shorter winters. One of his research groups has created models for how the date of a first snowfall can affect the moose population. The “stochastic” model introduces the element of randomness to simulate the variability of the first snowfall each year.
It feels a little weird to be proud of an older family member like this, but here we are. I think it’s because we’re so similar. We both bounced around life trying to find direction, and have had our share of struggles, but we eventually each figured out how to turn an interest in computer science into a fulfilling life, even if we aren’t the greatest at it. He’s even the family member I most look and sound like.
So, three cheers for uncle Bill!
Who are some family members you are proud of?