Michael Wolf Appointed School of Mathematics Chair

Michael Wolf is the new chair of the School of Mathematics, effective summer 2022. His three-decade tenure at Rice University has stretched across research and education, diversity and equity, undergrad admissions and life, to strategy and development.

November 15, 2021 | Atlanta, GA

The College of Sciences is pleased to announce the appointment of Michael Wolf as the new chair of the School of Mathematics, effective summer 2022.

“Dr. Wolf plans to assume his new post on July 1, 2022,” shares Susan Lozier, dean of the College of Sciences and Betsy Middleton and John Clark Sutherland Chair. “I look forward to working with him to advance the teaching and research missions across the School of Math and of the College of Sciences — and to the energy, creativity, and strategy that he will bring as we welcome him to the Georgia Tech community.”

“I was thrilled to be invited to chair the School of Math,” Wolf says. “Georgia Tech’s Mathematics faculty is world-renowned for its strength and scope, and it is an honor to participate in its leadership. Mathematics is an engine for modern science and technology — from codes for cybersecurity, to differential equations that explain black holes and the interfaces of materials, to machine learning and mathematical neuroscience, and through beautiful advances whose applications will only be revealed to our grandchildren. Mathematics is everywhere, and Georgia Tech’s mathematicians are at the frontier.”  

“What’s also wonderful about the School is the unusual extent of the connections between the research in the School and the rest of campus,” he adds. “Of course, mathematics is central to most fields of inquiry, and all fields grow increasingly quantitative over time, but at Tech, one sees the interactions on personal levels. ”

“Simultaneously, the nation’s student population is at a moment of change,” Wolf notes. “The population is more diverse than ever before, with income distributions more attenuated than at any other time in our lifetimes, with shortages of STEM professionals in the millions in the coming decade. Almost all of those students will pass through our mathematics classrooms multiple times, so we need to find ways to support all of these young people so they can achieve their ambitions in science and engineering,” he explains. “Georgia Tech is already in the leadership of programs that welcome their students into the community of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. I look forward to participating in building on that success.”

Meet Mike Wolf

Wolf received his Ph.D. in Mathematics at Stanford University as an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow after completing math and philosophy studies at Yale University as an undergraduate. In 1986, Massachusetts Institute of Technology named Wolf a C. L. E. Moore instructor, a role for recent Math Ph.D.s who show promise in pure mathematics research.

Two years later, Wolf joined the faculty at Rice University, where he served most recently as Milton B. Porter Professor. During his one-third of a century at Rice, Wolf has held many positions, including two periods as chair of the Department of Mathematics, head of a residential college, and co-founder and co-director of the Rice Emerging Scholars Program.

The scope of Wolf’s tenure at Rice and beyond stretches through mathematics research and education, to diversity and equity, undergraduate admissions and life, to strategy and development. “There are very few offices on the Rice campus I haven’t interacted with in a meaningful way,” he shares.

Residential College Magister

“About 15 years ago, I took an unusual administrative position, that of a residential college ‘magister’. At Rice, my family and I lived on campus in a house astride an undergraduate residence for five years,” Wolf says. “During that time, I got to know about 750 undergraduates quite well, serving as a mentor to them as they lived their lives as young people trying to manage semi-independently for the first time while also trying to navigate their way through college. I was left with a far richer understanding of contemporary undergraduate life and education than I had had before.”

Wolf shares that during that half-decade living on campus, he “became frustrated by the experiences of our students of high potential from under-resourced high schools. These are kids who are valedictorians of their class in rural or urban high schools, often the first of their family to go to college, and whose preparation for college was just well behind those of their upper middle class suburban peers,” he says. 

“Often from a family background of job insecurity, most wanted a career in science or engineering. They were smart and at least as hard-working and mature as the rest of their freshman competition — but the pace, rigor, depth and scope of what they were asked to do as matriculating science and engineering students was just too much to handle with a background that often included far fewer AP or even regular science classes.” 

The result? “They left STEM in droves, sometimes even failing to make it to their junior year as college students,” he says, but also that “four years after I began to gather statistics and highlight this issue to the senior university leadership, Rice asked me in 2010 to co-lead an effort to address the problem.”

Equity, diversity, access, representation — and retention

That effort led to the Rice Emerging Scholars Program (RESP), which takes in a number of incoming science and engineering matriculants and, “through a summer bridge program and aggressive term-time interventions, seeks to have this group, whose preparation leaves them most at risk to not achieve their dreams, succeed at the level of their peers,” Wolf says. 

Now, in a typical year, “more than 80% of our group has, in their fourth semester, declared a major in science or engineering, while a similarly prepared control group averages about 50%, and the general peer group is at 75%.” 

“We comprehensively attack the obstructions these students face, from an ‘anti-remedial’ bridge program that focuses on very difficult topics in STEM to advising that encompasses the idiosyncratic problems these folks face as typically low-income, first generation, and/or students of color,” he shares. 

Wolf says that work must also focus on anticipating the arc of a student’s career and identifying inherent milestones — and also in carefully defining every obstruction that might stand in their way, and proactively producing sustainable solutions and ongoing support for each student, focusing first on those most likely to fall behind their peers. “Many programs address just some of the obstacles students must overcome,” he says, “but those approaches leave them vulnerable to the remaining barriers. You simply have to confront every issue.”

“This program has been important for Rice,” he shares. “We were the first program on campus that intervened academically for cohorts like the one we address.” Since then, a new ‘holistic’ advising office has opened on campus that is modeled on the team’s practices, and that today, access and inclusion stand as one of eight planks in Rice’s new strategic plan.

“Most of my administrative work in the past decade or so has been in the direction of transitioning to successful science and engineering undergraduate students whose background puts them at risk for not realizing their ambitions,” Wolf says. “Most of these students in the Emerging Scholars Program are from groups poorly represented in the sciences — about one-third are first generation collegians, almost all are from underrepresented minority groups, most are women, and almost all are low income.” 

“The really cool part of this work is engaging with these students as pre-matriculants and then freshmen and then seniors and finally graduates,” he adds. “I get to watch them mature from not knowing their own potential to succeeding and finally realizing that they can take on and surmount very difficult challenges and lead in that work: I think this is the most personally gratifying administrative work there can be.”

Wolf received Rice’s George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching and the Marjorie Corcoran Award for those contributions to the advancement of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM. His service leadership there has also included appointments on the University’s strategic planning group on diversity and equity, as Faculty Senate Parliamentarian, the University Faculty’s Officer for Grievances and Appeals, and on numerous committees on issues across the University — from General Educations, to Benefits, to Data Warehouses, to a committee he chaired that rewrote Rice’s calendar — along with several diversity and equity initiatives.

Vertically integrated student support: NSF VIGRE

Wolf has also served as PI and co-I of the Rice VIGRE Program, an NSF-funded initiative whose primary goal is to “increase the number of well-prepared U.S. citizens, nationals, and permanent residents who pursue careers in the mathematical sciences and to broaden their background and perspective” through sustained mentoring, education, and training.

VIGRE stands for Vertical InteGration of Research and Education and in the NSF program’s context, “vertical means across academic ranks: faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates.” Under Wolf’s leadership, Rice secured two five-year VIGRE grants, and when that program became more targeted as the NSF Research Training Grant program, Wolf was part of a team that secured two more five-year grants.

“During the second VIGRE grant, I was department chair, and a consequence of that grant was that I was able to permanently grow our Instructorship pool from five to eight lines; those extra lines — quite a jump for a department in a small school — enhanced our ability to teach and are attractions when we recruit,” he says, also noting that “graduate education in the science and technical areas in this country must change. Our current systems obstruct us from welcoming into the best STEM post-baccalaureate programs whole cohorts of students with amazing potential.”

Research, recognition, outreach

An active teacher and scholar, Wolf’s research lies in geometry, at the intersection of the study of families of surfaces and geometric variational problems. His work which has garnered the most popular attention is a proof, with Weber and Hoffman, of the existence of a minimal surface — an idealized soap film — of a ‘helicoid with a handle’. This shape, announced in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with a full proof in the Annals of Mathematics that ran for more than 100 pages, was the first example since the 18th century of a ‘topologically’ simple minimal surface which was infinitely twisted.

Over 34 years, Wolf has also served as investigator on a number of grants and programs with the NSF; his educational work has been supported by the Chao Foundation, Hearst Foundations, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and Alkek Foundation. He has delivered talks at dozens of universities and conferences spanning five continents, has co-authored several publications on STEM education and Bridge programs, and delivers occasional talks to groups of teachers and the general public. “We once offered a course to the public on the hardest unsolved problems in mathematics. Outreach at Rice was convinced that no one would ever want to pay $79 to listen to math lectures,” he shares. “They were astonished when the course filled to capacity and was one of the most popular courses they had ever produced.”

“There is a tremendous interest in mathematics in the community, and a tremendous need for the scientific community to find ways to explain — to both school children and the general community — what scientists and mathematicians do and why it is interesting, as well as important,” Wolf says. “One of the attractions of Georgia Tech to me is its interest in engaging in such critical partnerships.”

In 2019, Wolf was named a Simons Foundation Fellow in Mathematics and in 2013 was among the inaugural class of Fellows of the American Mathematical Society (AMS). In his early career, Wolf was both an Alfred P. Sloan Doctoral Dissertation and Research Fellow, as well as a NSF Mathematical Sciences Postdoctoral Research Fellow. He has been a member of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute several times, and has twice worked as a Research Professor there.

With a particular focus on geometric analysis and geometry and topology, Wolf has also long-served on several journal editorial boards including Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society and Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society.

A past member of the AMS Committee on National Speakers, Wolf is also a frequent NSF panelist and co-organizer of international math conferences, colloquia, and congresses, including serving as National lecturer for the Sigma Xi society.

 

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About the School of Mathematics at Georgia Tech

The School of Mathematics is one of the original academic departments at Georgia Tech, dating back to 1888. The School continues to be a cornerstone of the Institute, and today is a vibrant community of faculty working on the highest caliber of mathematical research and educating a cohort of remarkable students on campus.

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