Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 20, 2021

Torcaso discusses probability, teaching and being inappropriate

By JULIA FELICIONE | October 25, 2012

Fred Torcaso is a senior lecturer in the Department of Applied Math and Statistics at Hopkins. His work and experience were driven by his passion for mathematics and probability. He has navigated the world of insurance, research, academia and even the United States Naval Observatory with a spirit of diligence, exploration and inappropriateness.

The News-Letter sat down with Torcaso to talk about how he ended up at Hopkins.

The News-Letter (N-L): Where are you from?

Fred Torcaso (FT): I grew up in Munroe, Conn. There isn't much to do, it's not like Maryland. It was good family time; we had big yards in the suburbs.

N-L: What was your family like?

FT: I'm the first generation American; my parents were immigrants from Italy. My father was primarily a blue-collar worker so we sort of struggled growing up, so it was tough. Both my parents worked so it was very hard — I have one brother and two sisters and we were always around the house. I don't speak Italian though; they grew up speaking Italian around the house. When I was at an age where I was just ready to learn to speak, my parents had to stop speaking Italian around the house because my sister only spoke Italian and when she started school her principal actually walked her back because she wasn't speaking English. It forced them to speak English around the house and so I didn't pick up on [Italian]. But they still gave me commands in Italian, and I would just go and do it and I think even now if they gave me those commands I would still jump...it was a fun bilingual household growing up.

N-L: How did that shape you growing up?

FT: I always found grammar and reading difficult. Because my parents never really forced me to read, I forced my child to read. I didn't do a lot of novel reading until I got to high school. I think it had a big impact; I think I enjoyed reading math books, but I wish I could have enjoyed a good novel growing up. I think that is important but I never did [it]. I wish my parents would've-- they said education was important but they never pushed me towards it.

N-L: But, you pushed yourself towards math?

FT: Yeah, for some reason math just clicked with me from an early age. From about 9th or 10th grade in high school I felt I had a really strong math ability.

N-L: What happened in 10th grade?

FT: I don't know how much of this I should admit, but in 10th grade I took both algebra 2 and geometry at the same time--it was the first year they offered students the opportunity to take both and by some quirk in the schedule I was placed in both, I wasn't supposed to be there initially. I had two incredibly great instructors and I just ended up doing really well primarily because of the challenge. I was with students who were in the honors program, but I could compete. I was given an opportunity to show I could actually do something . Either I could rise to the occasion or fade it into the mix. I sort of rose to the occasion. I also really enjoyed that we had two really good high school instructors, very good teachers, growing up so I think that helped a lot.

N-L: Before that in middle and elementary school were you an average student?

FT: I was very average; I didn't really find myself academically until about tenth grade. I followed the teachers the rest of high school. I had them again the following year with pre-calc, analytic geometry and calculus. They sort of shaped my academic career. And it didn't happen until late in my academic life. I think most kids find their strength in middle school. I think I had ADD or something, but this is before they diagnosed it. It didn't really happen to me until until like 10th grade: I went from Fs and D's and C's to pretty much straight A's. I wish I could explain it because it is very interesting. Something happened with that mistake in enrollment. Something happened when they put me with the honor students-- academically, a phase transition happened in my life. It's weird; people don't automatically just become smart, but the other students forced me to work and I think that's where I learned to study.

N-L: Were you distracted because of the complications at home?

FT: No, I was kind of an immature kid. I was a boy growing up, and I was the first boy in the family. Even in my stat class, I'm pretty immature, and I say very inappropriate things. I guess that's part of the way I learned to deal with things. I think I got a lot of it from my dad. I look more like my mom and I behave like my dad.

N-L: Where did you go to college?

FT: As an undergraduate I went to the University of Connecticut. I actually started college at the University of Bridgeport in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but I dropped out of college, not due to bad grades but [because] I was indecisive. I changed majors three times in three semesters. It went from math and physics to applied math to I'm just going to drop out until I figure out what to do. So, I took a hiatus from college [for] about 3.5 to 4 years. In between, I worked a midnight job in a sweatshop factory. I worked from midnight until eight in the morning, holding two jobs. My parents, also, didn't have a lot of money for me for college. I raised enough money in that time to pay my way through college.

N-L: What was your major when you finally went back?

FT: When I went back, I ended up settling on math. And then actually, the University of Connecticut had a very large program in statistics, so, actually, I did both mathematics and statistics. It was a dual enrollment degree.

N-L: After you got your undergraduate degree what did you do?

FT: In my senior year, I took a summer internship, the summer of 1987, at the Hartford Insurance Group in Hartford, Connecticut. I worked as an actuary, and did a lot of computer programming at that time. They invited me back the following summer, and then they gave me a position in 1989 to work full-time. Then, after I got my degree, I was took graduate courses at the stats department at the University of Connecticut. And I knew I wanted to continue to graduate school but I was making such great money at the [Hartford Insurance Group] that I thought it would help me pay my way through. In 1990, I made the decision that I wanted to go to graduate school full time, so I applied and went to school at the University of Maryland, College Park in 1991 for a graduate degree in mathematical probability. I knew right away coming out of college that that's what I wanted to do.

N-L: Why probability?

FT: I chose probability because I picked up a bad habit from the guys I worked with which was that they went out and gambled. I ended up losing a lot of money. I won a lot of money, but I lost a lot of money. And I wanted to learn more about why I was losing money. When I took probability in Maryland, I learned exactly why I was losing money. Needless to say, I don't gamble today. But I love probability. I love the way it works; I love everything about it. I then spent seven years in graduate school and earned my PhD. I was a little slow, I probably could've done it in five years if I had my act together, but then again, I had some maturity problems. But I did it in seven years, which is okay, it's sort of long, but still I think now the national average is about five 5.5 years from undergrad.

N-L: After you got your PhD did you jump straight into teaching?

FT: No. I graduated with my PhD in 1998 and I took a postdoctoral fellowship at the United States Naval Observatory. Academic jobs were kind of slim pickings then so unless you're in the top 5% of the graduating class you probably weren't going to get a good job. And I didn't want to just move anywhere or to some vibrant large metropolitan area. I wanted to stay local, like in Newark or Hartford. So I did that and I worked with atomic clocks-- a very, very precise timekeeping device. They keep the national timescale there so the GPS satellites are all synchronized to the USNO. And I was responsible for keeping the timescale for a brand-new clock they were making. The job was very, very stressful. I loved the job because it presented a lot of challenges. I think it was the first time in my life when I realized what a high-stress job is like and I learned that I was not truly fit for a high-stress job. It's high-stress because a lot of results were demanding answers from you in a very short time. Although I was willing to work hard, I think the constraints put on me... well the bars were set too high. And there was a big learning curve. I didn't have a very strong physics background-- that could have helped me, I think. But I did publish a lot of work while I was there. I published about three papers there. I left that job after a year and I went back to the Hartford Insurance Group. So, we moved; my wife was pregnant at the time. We were married in 1997, I actually met her in a graduate program at Maryland. She currently teaches at Howard Community College in Columbia, Md.

N-L: When did you end up at Hopkins?

FT: I was in a division call the Marketing Research Division. I was the only mathematician working on marketing and research. I did that for like two years, from 1999 to 2001. Then, I just got bored silly of it. I felt as though I always had to explain everything I did because I wasn't around other mathematicians. It was frustrating explaining my models to people who wouldn't have a hope of remotely understanding them anyway. I decided that this wasn't the right environment for me, so I applied for jobs, and I was fortunate again to get a job at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. In 2001, I took a visiting assistant professorship. It was just a one year temporary professorship. I also at the same time taught a probability internship program designed for recent PhDs in probability to learn more about probability and design. So, it's kind of a probability summer school for young PhDs. I learned a whole bunch of research programs and we ended up solving a whole host of problems. The program jump-started my research projects.

N-L: What type of research did you do?

FT: I was interested in the overlap of probability theory and differential equations, two areas of math that seemingly are disparate. But, actually, there's a pretty nice overlap between the two fields, and I like studying that intersection. We were interested in measuring the distributions of very special random variables like, for example, what does the probability distribution look like near zero? And how does it decay?

N-L: What came of this research?

FT: I wrote several papers. We showed a lot of very interesting things. It means very little in terms of real world applications... But there is a group of physicists that are interested in these results. It will help them understand things like entropy.

N-L: Did you receive recognition for your work?

FT: I ended up publishing in a journal that, in graduate school, I could barely even read. And I used several other high-end mathematics journals with papers that followed. Very happy with the quality of work that came out, very happy. Later that year, I applied for jobs and Hopkins was one of the jobs that offered me a position. I started in the fall of 2002. Then, I stopped doing research in 2004 because I love teaching too much. I don't know if you're aware of this; my title is actually ‘senior lecturer’ in the applied math and statistics department. I'm technically not a professor and as such, I'm not required to do research as part of my job. My primary duty is to teach and as such I have to teach three classes.

N-L: Would you say teaching was more of your passion?

FT: Yes, I always say teaching is more of my thing. I get to really challenge my students and bring them on the brinks of current research. I enjoy it; I like trying to communicate with kids and help them realize that stuff is beautiful and applicable. Part of our job is to try to motivate you to want to learn more and I hope I do that.

N-L: How would you describe your teaching style?

FT: Even though I have large groups of students I am motivated to come up with innovative ways to keep large groups of students engaged in lectures because I do think that lectures are really important. But, more importantly, I have to get you to read the book and work. So I have to do everything I can to make you listen even if that means saying ridiculous and inappropriate things. When I teach my students, I really try to stress that even if you aren't gifted mathematically or statistically, if they're willing to work hard, that alone is actually is going to make them succeed. I don't care, so what if you get a B. If you worked hard to get that B, that students is going to do better in life than the student that got an A and didn't have to try. I think it's important that students work hard because that's what's going to get them through. Plus, I believe life is full of luck, and if you're diligent, someone will give you an opportunity. There are people who get opportunities and squander them and those who make the most of their opportunities.

N-L: Do you have any hobbies?

FT: Crossword puzzles. I'm a crossword puzzle hound. I love the New York Times crossword puzzles. I also like doing sudoku; I'm very good at sudoku. Give me the hardest puzzle you can find, and I could probably do it in 20 minutes. Besides crossword puzzles, I love spending time with my family, especially at my son's soccer tournaments. I also love eating Italian food.

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