UL Math: Not small Potatoes

I began searching for a meaningful way to summarize the past three extraordinary months at the University of Limerick as a Mitchell Scholar in the way every 22-year old starts an endeavor like that: by logging onto Facebook.

Upon logging in, the first thing I saw was a six minute old post from another Mitchell Scholar: “[I’m] writing a blog post about my experiences in Ireland. . . . What topics would make said blog post interesting for you, gentle reader?”

I quickly piggy backed on his ingenuity with a brief comment: “Friends of Jerry: if you’ve got extra ideas for said blog post, I’m all ears.”

And then we both waited.

Sixteen minutes later, Patricia from Back Home suggested talking about the banter in the pubs.

I have been spending lots of time exploring Limerick’s restaurants and pubs – maybe that’s what I would go with.

Five minutes after that, Chris from Back Home suggested “Potatoes.”

Then the chatter went silent until 30 minutes later Lexington from Back Home ‘liked’ Chris’s “Potatoes.”

Exactly an hour from when I first logged into Facebook, I closed my browser and resolved to find the words and ideas to summarize my first three months in Ireland myself. After all, a dimension of the Mitchell Scholarship is being a cultural ambassador from the United States to Ireland, and in nine months being a cultural envoy from Ireland to the United States. This suggests taking time to reflect on and synthesize experiences to promote Irish-American mutual understanding, and my first contribution to that understanding – however small – should probably not begin with a blog about potatoes. (Sorry Chris.)

Rather, what came to mind is the University of Limerick’s math department, where I’m studying for an MSc Mathematical Modelling. It’s not as riveting as a synopsis of pub banter, but it has genuinely made a strong impression on me.

Since winning the Mitchell Scholarship I talked the university up in my head to being an institution of creatively applied mathematics. It was going to be a bastion of diverse coursework. From tearing through the website before my finalist interview last November, to sporadically poring over it between last November and August, I was enamored. Rarely before had I found required graduate coursework on say mathematical geoscience and mathematical biology in the same department.

To sum it up: the Department published a paper a year and a half ago explaining why the bubbles in Guinness float downwards. (And they are working on a general model for the carbonation in all stout beers now.) The department and I seemed to be a great fit. While it was clearly going to be a year of rigorous academics, it was also going to be a year of watching and listening to understand the dynamics that facilitated such diverse, applied material.

I arrived in Limerick in September, coasted through the academic and cultural honeymoon period from September to mid-October, and now in early November am still fascinated by the department, despite endless problem sets and midterms.

After observing the department for two and a half months, I realize that the culture that motivates the diverse coursework derives in part from a unique modeling consortium the department has with Irish industry. It provides real-world problems for dissertations and coursework, it inhibits possible Ivory Tower-syndrome, and it allows for collaboration within the department and within the Faculty of Science and Engineering. The impacts of the consortium permeate much of what the department does, and it is a model that many American universities could benefit from. It forces not just new applications in mathematics, but drives the innovation of methods as well.

While it’s been a privilege to be a part of the UL math department, I would even add it has been fun. We field a highly competitive soccer team (actually), on which I am their star striker (not actually). The free coffee and tea flows endlessly during late nights and during Department coffee hours on Thursday. We bought a 1L whiskey for our cubicle farm, and we’ve almost trained the takeout pizza guy to drive right up to the correct door of the building. I’m bringing in an American football after midterms, and I’m going to teach the guys how to play (real?) football.  It has been a successful first three months, and I am looking forward to the next nine.

*All the above names are changed for privacy.

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