Professor: John Meier
Chair: David M. ’70 and Linda Roth Professor of Mathematics
Years at Lafayette: 26
Received Chair: 2017
Song: “Boulder to Birmingham” by Emmylou Harris
Connection to Endower
It’s often the case that the source of the endowment has moved on, possibly just because the funding has been around longer than the human beings involved. That’s not the case for me. I have met David and Linda Roth, and I think one of the things that really tickles me is the fact that I actually do know them, and I’ve had a few conversations with David since being named Roth Professor. That’s tremendous. David is an alum. The last time I got to chat with David, he was telling me all about his brother. I believe I’m getting the story right. He’ll kill me if I get the story wrong, but I’m pretty sure his brother is an applied mathematician at MIT who did some groundbreaking work on turbulence.
The Roths are tremendously serious people who have priorities they’re willing to act on; they have depth of character, and that’s a lot to live up to. The Roth Professors aren’t field specific, but I think he didn’t mind that one of them is now in mathematics. There’s also a Roth Professor in the anthropology and sociology department. For other chairs I’m sure it would also be wonderful if you were part of a very long history of people who were in that chair, but I think that for this one, this is actually a wonderful experience for me.
Connection to Chairs
You’ve got to have accomplished some things in order to get on peoples’ radar maps for them to consider that you would be a good person as an endowed chair, but I think a lot of it has to do, at least in my mind, the faculty are one of the cornerstones of an institution like Lafayette College. We’re here for a very long time relative to most other populations. There’s a lot in terms of the traditions and spirit of an institution that the faculty are involved in, and I would say that, maybe this sounds a little bit grand, but I think endowed chairs are often folks who are picked because they help exemplify some of those great things that we really like to see. And so, sure, the research record has a lot to do with it, but it’s also the teaching record, it’s the interactions with students that you’ve had over ages and interactions with colleagues that you’ve had. You know, over 20-plus years, there’s a lot of those. But at the same time, it’s not sort of an exit prize. It’s intended very much to help someone. Endowed chairs all come with a professional development fund, and I think that’s the thing that’s perhaps most intriguing because I could basically use those funds to fully fund a student researcher working with me. I can use it to bring in colleagues from across the country to work on mathematics. And so I can help use those funds to build the intellectual life of the campus, and I think that’s just a tremendous privilege.
Connection to Song
The song I picked is “Boulder to Birmingham.” It’s a signature song by Emmylou Harris. It also has a version by the Wailin’ Jennys, but I prefer the Emmylou Harris version. I struggled with picking this song. My very first instinct was a Germen hymn from the 1500s that Bach and Buxtehude did all kinds of fun stuff with, but that sounded way too egg headed, so I decided not to go with that. And then I went with angry youth like the Clash or Gang of Four, but angry youth was a very short period of my life. Emmylou has had a much longer influence in my life. A large part of why I picked it is because it’s Emmylou, and it’s also, I would say, a hopeful, positive, yet wistful sort of look back at things that happened as one is moving forward. Having an endowed chair is something like that. It’s both built on accomplishment and promise. And so I think that’s where it fits a little bit with the tune, even though it’s mainly about a very good friend of hers who had died. In that sense, I don’t think I have a mathematical parallel.
Connection to Students
There’s been lots of interesting mathematics. I’ve done all sorts of different things, all of which is hard to explain, and there’s also the 26 years of Lafayette College students. And I think that’s probably that “wistful” bit that I also get. You have all these wonderful students who come into your life for a semester and then move on with their lives. It’s just this tremendous history of interactions with terrific students.
There’s a number of students that reach out to me over the years, but it’s hard to sort of say exactly who or why those longer-term relationships happen. Some are students with whom I worked on an honors thesis. Many are students whom I did research with. Some of those aren’t actually Lafayette students: We’ve got National Science Foundation funding that brings students from elsewhere in the summer to come work with us. Some are people I just had a single class. One is somebody that worked for me as a supplemental instructor. So it’s all sorts of different students. I regularly teach our history of math class, and I probably hear from alums from that class more than any other. In all honesty, it’s the course where I get my weakest evaluations, so I wouldn’t predict it based on that. I think there’s just something about the conversations you have there that maybe feel a little bit different than they do in a standard, perhaps a little more theoretical, math class.
Connection to Math
Math is a little bit different from a lot of other disciplines. We tend to teach whatever needs to get taught. We teach broadly across the curriculum. Last semester, I think, is probably a great example of that. I did some foundational statistics from applied statistics courses as well as our introduction to proofs course, which is sort of a basic method: Here’s the key tools that you’re going to need if you actually want to be a math major. So these are wildly different groups of students and interests and motivations. We use the book that Derek Smith and I wrote for the course. We’ve made Lafayette students suffer through draft notes of this for about a decade, so it was really nice this first semester that an actual bound copy of the book was available to them. It’s much better in the bound version. I know that Emery and Lehigh, off the top of my head, are going to be using it next semester, and Cambridge University is officially unveiling it to the world at the Joint Math Meeting. And then it will sell like hotcakes. It took over ten years. It shouldn’t have taken that long, but I was working as an administrator for a while, and that put a serious headwind into getting the thing completed.
Connection to Mathematicians
I think mathematicians like to poke fun at ourselves and our awkward social skills. I usually tell stories about speakers at major conferences who did a profoundly bad job of giving their talk. That’s a lot of fun, especially because they are incredibly famous within mathematics, so it’s great to have the legends of the field really screw up. I went to graduate school primarily with the interest of teaching. I wanted to teach mathematics, and it looked like the college setting was the nicest job opportunity that would be out there for doing that kind of work. So I’ve worked really hard at it. I’ve thought long and hard to get a lot of instincts. I think I do a pretty good job of maintaining connections with a large number of students in class so that I can monitor how things are going. Even 26 years in, they still fool me sometimes. It’s very hard. It’s like, OK, either you all are bored or confused, and I’m not sure which. I’ve gotten very good at just asking. I used to think I had to figure it out. Now I can just ask.
Connection to Research
I’m a geometrical group theorist. I like to study the interplay between geometric objects and their symmetry. And so there are a lot of projects that I’ve got on the front burner in terms of things like that. Some of them are built on things that I did earlier, some of them are much more new. I’ve recently been having great fun learning about what’s called topological data analysis. It’s a new tool in statistics. I think my interests in it are more theoretical than practical, although the field has had real contributions in things even as concrete as cancer research, and I think those are probably the two things that are on the front burner for me in terms of research.