If you’re struggling to understand a mathematician’s explanation of a complicated problem, don’t get discouraged.
“It’s likely out of context for you,” says Utah State University mathematics professor Nathan Geer. “Even mathematicians struggle to communicate with each other.”
Yet, it’s the ideas generated from mathematical thought that make the discipline intriguing, says Geer, who recounted his own challenges along an academic path during his Oct. 18 presentation, “From Aspiration to Knots and Donuts.”
The talk was the first gathering of the university’s 2018-19 Inaugural Professor Lecture Series at the USU President’s Home. Coordinated by the Provost’s Office, the series highlights the accomplishments and academic journeys of faculty, who have been promoted to full professor in the past year.
“As a child with dyslexia, I struggled to read and my spelling was terrible,” says Geer, who grew up in Colorado. “Yet, I was interested in ideas.”
His parents, he says, encouraged his pursuits.
“I tried everything: archery, building model airplanes, collecting rocks, music … my dad played chess with me,” he recalls. “Despite my academic struggles, my parents instilled in me the importance of education and ideas. I never considered not going to college.”
During his first semester at Colorado State University, Geer listened as fellow students and professors shared ideas.
“I realized I wanted to be a professor,” he says. “The question was, ‘In what?’”
Math seemed a logical bet (no spelling) and Geer tackled calculus, landing a disappointing “D” grade on the first exam.
“I met a girl in the class, whom I wanted to impress and that was my motivation to study harder,” he says.
His hard work paid off. Well, at least academically.
“I can’t even remember her name, but I earned an ‘A’ in the class and that gave me the confidence to keep going,” Geer says. “I liked the concepts and the relationships between ideas.”
With mathematics, he says, you develop an idea, you work hard and “you’re so much in your own brain.”
“Then, one day, your idea suddenly fits together,” Geer says. “It’s beautiful. It comes out in a gobbledy-goop of words, but you feel like you’re seeing the essence of the universe.”
After graduating from CSU, Geer got into his first choice graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania, but surprised himself by ultimately choosing his “back-up” school, the University of Oregon.
“I fell in love with Oregon and earned my doctoral degree in 2004,” he says.
After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Georgia Tech, Geer joined the faculty of USU’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics in 2009 and his accomplishments have been impressive.
He was named College of Science Researcher of the Year in 2013 and has received a number of National Science Foundation grant awards, including the prestigious Faculty Early Career Development ‘CAREER’ grant in 2015. That same year, Geer received a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Research Fellowship. During a 2015-16 sabbatical, he was invited to conduct research as a visiting scholar at the University of Paris Sorbonne, where he achieved the academic rank of CNRS Directeur de Recherches.
“I love Utah State, I love Logan and I believe in the land-grant mission,” says Geer, who serves as assistant department head. “Utah State cares about teaching and cares about research. Coming here has made many wonderful things happen.”
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