Mathematics Departmental News for 2011

Martonosi Math Model Reduces Airport Wait Times (2011-12-22)

Susan Martonosi, associate professor of mathematics, recently appeared on The Academic Minute, a radio program that features professors from the world’s top institutions.

The segment, which aired Dec. 21, shared how Martonosi developed a mathematical model to reduce the wait times in airport security lines.

Martonosi examined the benefits of queue control after a meeting in 2004 with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials at San Francisco International Airport. There, she observed the methods TSA officials used to manage the flow of people through airport security checkpoints.

When one line would grow longer than another, they would shift a team of inspectors to that terminal to reduce waiting times. Noting that TSA officials were making these real-time decisions using observed queue lengths, knowledge of flight schedules and past experience, Martonosi wondered if a mathematical model could improve the process and reduce wait times.

She used an approximate dynamic programming framework to model a queuing system consisting of two parallel queues, and tested the model on both synthetic and security checkpoint data from Boston Logan International Airport. At every decision point (about every 30 minutes), the model determined whether or not to switch one or more servers from one queue to the other to minimize traveler wait times. The tradeoff was that when a switch occurred, the server was off-duty for a short time to reflect the time required to walk from one queue to the other.

The results revealed that in situations where customer arrival times fluctuate significantly, dynamic reallocation of servers to queues could reduce customer wait times. However, the optimal decision of when to reallocate servers did not obey simple rules that a manager could use on-the-fly, and using seemingly common sense rules could increase waiting times.

Most airports can meet the “industry standard” goal of getting passengers through security in 10 minutes or less, Martonosi said, although it may sometimes feel longer.

“They do a pretty good job of anticipating and adapting to high volumes of travelers, including holiday travel times,” she said. “When they may run into trouble is when outside factors, such as weather delays that often happen during the winter holidays and sudden gate changes cause last-minute disruptions.”

That, she said, is when using a mathematical model may come in handy.

Listen to “Dr. Susan Martonosi, Harvey Mudd College – Airport Security Lines.”

Francis Su’s Work Chosen for The Best Writing on Mathematics 2011 Anthology (2011-11-17)

A journal article by mathematics professor Francis Su will be featured in a soon-to-be-released mathematics anthology published by Princeton University Press.

The Best Writing on Mathematics 2011 is the second volume in a series lauded as the first annual anthology published on mathematics writing. It presents a collection of texts selected as the finest mathematics writing published during 2010 in journals from several countries. The book delves into the history, philosophy, teaching and everyday occurrences of math, and offers insights into the nature, meaning and practice of mathematics today.

“[The book] reflects the literature on mathematics available out there in myriad publications, some difficult to consult even for people who have access to exceptional academic resources,” writes editor Mircea Pitici, a PhD candidate in mathematics education at Cornell University, who teaches at Cornell and Ithaca College. “I see my task as a restitution to the public, in convenient form, of excellent writing on mathematics that deserves enhanced reception beyond the initial publication.”

Contributing authors explore topics ranging from the mathematical inspirations of M.C. Escher’s art to the use of algorithms in the job market. Su’s contribution “asks what makes a learner become an inquirer—and further, a discoverer—and offers refreshing answers, contradicting some of the widely held assumptions concerning the effectiveness of instructional approaches in secondary and undergraduate mathematics,” writes Pitici in the book’s introduction.

Entitled, “Teaching Research: Encouraging Discoveries,” Su’s article originally appeared in the American Mathematical Monthly, considered the most widely read journal in mathematics. It was based on an invited plenary lecture Su gave at the 2006 MathFest, an annual summer meeting of the Mathematical Association of America.

“In the paper, I described lessons I’ve learned on how to do research with undergraduates, and more generally, how to encourage enthusiasm for mathematics,” Su said. “I’m honored my work was included in this anthology with that of writers I’ve admired for many years.”

Su’s article begins on page 203 of The Best Writing on Mathematics 2011, which also includes a foreword by esteemed physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson.

Mebane ’12 Wins World Puzzle Championship (2011-11-15)

Palmer Mebane ’12 took first place in the 2011 World Puzzle Championship, becoming the first American to win the individual title in twelve years.

Following a close, two-day battle with Ulrich Voigt, Germany’s seven-time world champion, Mebane emerged victorious in the November 12 playoffs in Eger, Hungary and was named the new world champion.

“I’ve been working hard the whole year to get better at this. I must have done tens of thousands of puzzles between now and the last world championship,” said Mebane, who recently seized first place in the 2011 US Puzzle Championship with a record score before moving on to this year’s world competition. “Improving meant simple things like knowing when to guess, when to do things logically, and just avoiding mistakes. It also meant specifics such as what to look for when doing a certain kind of puzzle and what signs might suggest a certain technique might be applicable.”

Mebane also participated on the U.S. team, which won first place in the puzzle championship’s team category.

A recap of Mebane’s WPC experience can be read on his blog, which also features some of Mebane’s own puzzle creations. He has also authored two competitions at Logic Masters India, which holds monthly puzzle and Sudoku contests.

The World Puzzle Federation is an international organization dedicated to puzzles. It follows the Olympic standard, and brings together puzzlers from around the world for the annual World Puzzle Championship (WPC). The federation strives to provide a means for an international exchange of puzzle ideas, stimulate innovations in the field of puzzles, and foster friendship among puzzle enthusiasts worldwide.

Math Department Awards Inaugural Borrelli Fellowship (2011-08-30)

Dhruv Ranganathan ’12 of Chennai, India, was awarded the inaugural Giovanni Borrelli Fellowship, which recognizes an HMC mathematics major who has demonstrated the ability to complete high-quality research either independently or in tandem with a faculty advisor.

The fellowship includes a stipend that will support summer research and travel, related to the research.

Ranganathan, is working with mathematics Professor Dagan Karp and Paul Riggins ’12 on techniques to study basic properties of toric varieties, with applications to Gromov–Witten Theory and Donaldson-Thomas Theory. This work impacts high-energy physics, algebraic geometry, algebraic topology and combinatorics. Ranganathan has described his results in a co-authored article entitled “Toric Symmetry of $CP^3$” and has lectured about his results in the Algebra, Number Theory and Combinatorics Seminar of The Claremont Colleges and at the 2011 Joint Mathematics Meetings in New Orleans. A poster of this work was presented at the fall, 2010, Western Algebraic Geometry Seminar at the University of Arizona and was selected for inclusion at the WAGS fall, 2011, poster session at Colorado State University.

Dhruv’s current interests include algebraic geometry and representation theory. He plans to continue studying these and other subjects in graduate school, with the goal of joining the professoriate.

Honoring Emeritus Professor Robert Borrelli

The Giovanni Borrelli Fellowship was established through the generosity of Emeritus Professor Robert (“Bob”) Borrelli, who joined HMC as a mathematics professor in 1964. In his over 30 years of service to the College, he has served as department chair and was pivotal in the development of the Clinic program. “Bob Borrelli was instrumental in helping to build the amazing Mathematics Department we have here today,” said fellow mathematics professor Andy Bernoff. “His creation of the Giovanni Borrelli Fellowship will support the next generation of mathematicians. He continues to be an inspiration for the Mathematics Department.”

Before coming to the College, Borrelli was a senior engineering specialist at Philco Corp., and a National Science Faculty Fellow at MIT and the University of Bonn, West Germany. He received his B.S. and M.S. in mathematics from Stanford University and his PhD in applied mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley.

More Than Formulas (2011-08-23)

Summer research featuring Rosalie Carlson ’13 and Kevin O’Neill ’13, working with Professor Francis Su.

Excited to Teach Math, Excited to Learn Math: A Formula for Success (2011-05-26)

Nate Pinsky ’13 and Elly Schofield ’13 taught math to 23 third graders from Chaparral Elementary School in Claremont, Calif., for several weeks this spring, culminating in a trip to the Harvey Mudd College campus in May.

“I think exploring what it’s like to be a teacher in a classroom is really valuable,” says Schofield of her experience. “It is really amazing to see the look on kids’ faces when they get a concept. It is very rewarding.”

Pinsky and Schofield decided to design an independent study project around the need to improve mathematics literacy of elementary school students. With the help of advisor and Mathematics Professor Michael Orrison, Pinsky and Schofield teamed up to develop five interactive lessons of educationally enriching (and fun!) activities to get third graders excited about learning math.

“Since I’ve gone to Mudd, I’ve found myself more and more interested in elementary math education,” says Pinsky. During their first year at HMC, both students became interested in math education while working at Homework Hotline, a call-in tutoring service that helps elementary and middle school students with math and science homework.

This May, to encourage their interest in science, math and engineering, Chaparral third graders toured the HMC campus led by Pinsky, Schofield and other HMC students. The third graders were able to participate in a hands-on experiment in the chemistry lab and visit the rocket and computer science labs. Pinsky and Schofield hope to expand their project with elementary school students in the coming years.

Frantz Awarded Binder Prize (2011-04-27)

Here is the friendly face that greets you in the HMC Department of Mathematics. She is also the designated “go-to” person, the one you can rely on to get the job done well.

During her first year on campus, she helped launch the first HMC math conference, which is now an annual event. Her positive attitude and work ethnic have earned her respect and renown.

These are but a few reasons why Suzanne Frantz, math department coordinator, has been awarded the 2011 Mary G. Binder Prize.

Awarded each year to a member of HMC’s support staff, the prize recognizes someone who has combined a record of exceptional service with a helpful and friendly attitude toward students, staff and faculty.

“I feel very honored to have won this special prize and truly blessed to work for such appreciative people as those in the math department,” said Frantz, who was described as “gentle, clear and friendly” by one of the faculty members who nominated her and as one who serves “not only the math department but the broader community.”

Frantz’s award includes a $500 check, a commemorative certificate and the addition of her name on the Mary G. Binder Prize plaque in the foyer of Galileo Hall.

The Mary G. Binder Prize was established in 1997 with a gift from Professor Emeritus Sam Tanenbaum and his wife, Carol, in honor of Carol’s mother, Mary G. Binder, and in expression of their gratitude to HMC’s support staff.

“Mary G. Binder believes the greatest virtue in life is to help others,” said Sam Tanenbaum. “She practiced this philosophy in her interactions with other employees at work, through her contributions of time and talent to many charitable organizations and in her relations with neighbors, friends and family. She truly exemplified the spirit that we hope to recognize with this award.”

2011 International Mathematical Contest in Modeling and Interdisciplinary Contest in Modeling (MCM/ICM) Results (2011-04-12)

The results of the 2011 International Mathematical Contest in Modeling and Interdisciplinary Contest in Modeling have just been announced. HMC had seven teams of three students participating in the contest held in February.

We are pleased to report that one of our HMC teams earned the top designation of Outstanding (given to only eight teams out of the 2775 entries worldwide!) and the SIAM Award. This team consisted of Dylan Marriner ’12, Louis Ryan ’12, and Daniel Furlong ’12.

Moreover, another HMC team earned the designation Meritorious (top 15%), three earned Honorable Mention (top 45%), and two were Successful Participants. These results are an incredible showing for HMC and a testament to the strength of our core curriculum and academic program.

The MCM/ICM is analogous to an applied Putnam exam, in the form of a grueling 96-hour competition. As Ben Fusaro, creator of the contest in 1983, puts it: “Most problems that come up in business, government, or industry are solved by teams, are likely to take many hours, and would not be restricted to using only pencil and paper. Moreover, the answer must be presented to an executive who wants a clear, understandable response.” Thus during the contest students work in teams of up to three students and have 96 consecutive hours to develop a mathematical model and write a formal paper describing their work. The team’s papers are judged not only on their scientific and mathematical accuracy, but on their clarity of exposition, insight, and creativity.

This year’s problems concerned

  1. Maximizing “vertical air” achievable on a snowboarding half-pipe
  2. Minimizing the number of cell-phone repeaters needed to serve a geographical area
  3. Modeling the social, environmental, health, and economic impacts of electric vehicles

Here are the participating HMC teams:

Problem B—Outstanding

  • Dylan Marriner ’12
  • Louis Ryan ’12
  • Daniel Furlong ’12

Problem B—Meritorious

  • Kyle Luh ’11
  • Daniel Rozenfeld ’11
  • Dmitri Skjorshammer ’11

Problem A—Honorable Mention

  • Ryan Brewster ’12
  • Jackson Newhouse ’12
  • Richard Porczak ’12

Problem B—Honorable Mention

  • Sorathan Chaturapruek ’14
  • John Peebles ’13

Problem B—Honorable Mention

  • Emil Guliyev ’13
  • Peter Fedak ’13
  • Zack Purdy ’13

Problem A—Successful Participant

  • Joshua Edelman ’14
  • Russell Melick ’11
  • Tuan Nguyen ’14

Problem C—Successful Participant

  • John Cvitkovic ’11
  • Austin Quan ’11
  • David Rolfe ’11

Please join me in congratulating these Mudders on their excellent work!

Event Helps Girls Envision STEM Careers (2011-03-29).

More than 140 middle- and high-school–aged girls attended the first Sacred SISTAHS math and science conference held March 26 at Harvey Mudd College.

Although open to all girls, the event focused on empowering young African American girls by introducing them to successful academic and professional role models.

“My desire is that they will begin to imagine themselves in our positions in the future,” said keynote speaker Talithia Williams, assistant professor of mathematics at HMC (shown bottom, right).

Williams never envisioned herself earning a doctorate degree, because she had never “seen anyone who looked like me” who had an advanced degree in science or mathematics. After attending Spelman College (a historically black college for women), however, she was exposed to a wealth of successful African-American role models.

“There were five of them in the Mathematics Department alone,” Williams said. “It was during those years that I began to imagine myself attaining a Ph.D.”

Conference organizers hope to inspire young African American girls to pursue careers in science, technology and mathematics and to become leaders in their fields, Williams said.

The conference, “Envisioning a World of New Possibilities,” included workshops and panel discussions led by women in diverse academic and professional fields. Workshop facilitators included HMC mathematics Assistant Professor Rachel Levy, Technology Arts Composer Stacey Daniels, and Nurse Manager Michelle Atkins-Young, who serves as director of children’s services at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center.

Sacred SISTAHS (Sisters in Solidarity Teaching and Healing our Spirits), the Harvey Mudd College Mathematics Department, and Transcendence Children & Family Services of Pomona sponsored the event

2010 HMC William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition Results (2011-03-28)

The results of the nationwide 2010 William Lowell Putnam Competition have just been announced, and HMC had another strong showing.

Thirty-nine HMC students spent a Saturday in December (12/4/10) taking this very hard 6-hour exam, which requires a unique blend of cleverness and problem-solving skills. Nationwide, 4296 students competed, and this year the median score was 2 out of a total of 120 points. In the team competition,

Our team of Palmer Mebane ’12, Jennifer Iglesias ’12, and Peter Fedak ’13 placed twenty-first in the team category (out of 546 colleges and universities).

In the individual category, HMC had seven students in the Top 200.

Special honors go to the following participants:

Name Score Nationwide Rank
(out of 3627)
Palmer Mebane ’12 79 31 Honorable Mention
Craig Burkhart ’12 62 75 Honorable Mention
Jackson Newhouse ’12 59 103.5 Top 200 List
Jacob Scott ’11 58 115 Top 200 List
Kevin O’Neill ’12 52 139.5 Top 200 List
Tum Chaturapruek ’14 50 159.5 Top 200 List
Lee Wiyninger ’11 50 159.5 Top 200 List

Mebane, Burkhart, and Newhouse will be receiving RIF Prizes that honor the top Mudd finishers in the Putnam each year. In addition, the following students all made the Top 500 List:

  • Emil Guliyev ’13
  • Jennifer Iglesias ’12
  • Andrew Carter ’13
  • Louis Ryan ’12
  • Ryan Muller ’11
  • Aaron Pribadi ’12
  • Peter Fedak ’13

Only five other (much larger) schools could claim more students in the Top 200 in this year’s competition!

We are proud of all 39 students who sacrificed their time, talent, and energies to represent HMC in this year’s Putnam competition. These students who enjoy problem-solving represent a cross-section of majors at the College. Please join us in congratulating all those who participated!

(See data on HMC’s past Putnam performance.

Mathematicians Seek to Broaden Participation in Field (2011-01-18)

The Harvey Mudd College Department of Mathematics is bringing together students and faculty, leaders in academics and industry, and the public at large to discuss mathematics, what is being done to broaden participation in the mathematical sciences, and what needs to be done in the future.

“Broadening Participation in the Mathematical Sciences” will be held at HMC February 4 and 5 and includes an opening public lecture on Friday, February 4, by mathematics alumnus Robert Bell ’72 (right), a co-winner of the 2009 Netflix Prize.

Bell’s talk will be followed by lectures and a panel discussion on Saturday, all of which is punctuated with time for discussions and casual interactions. The panel will be comprised of individuals from industry and from all academic levels (students, postdoctoral scholars, junior faculty, senior faculty).

Conference co-organizer Talithia Williams, assistant professor of mathematics, said, “People often find themselves being told to wait: do not focus on broadening participation in mathematics until you are more senior, more recognized or more advanced. This panel hopes to discuss how to navigate these waters and provide answers to the question: How can one work toward broadening participation in mathematics at all levels of one’s career?”

Keynote speakers are:

  • Robert Bell ’72 (AT&T)—“Lessons from the Netflix Prize”
  • Judit Camacho (SACNAS)
  • Illya Hicks (Rice University)- “Are You Ready For Some Football?!!”
  • Philip Kutzko (University of Iowa)

Panel topic: “How can one work toward broadening participation in mathematics at all levels of one’s career?”


  • Candice Price (Iowa)
  • David Uminsky ’03 (UCLA)
  • Robin Wilson (Cal Poly Pomona)
  • Ami Radunskaya (Pomona College)
  • Herbert Medina (Loyola Marymount)
  • Robert Bell (AT&T)

Conference co-organizers are mathematics professors Talithia Williams, Dagan Karp and Ursula Whitcher.