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

Math is a foundational and universal discipline

By MUHAMMAD ABIDI | February 20, 2020

Mathematics — four syllables that evoke a wide array of emotions and responses. Many of these emotions that arise are rooted in high school experiences of extensive formula memorizing and glitching of graphing calculators. However, mathematics is not simply a list of trigonometric identities.

Richard Brown, director of undergraduate studies for the Mathematics department, sat down for an interview with The News-Letter to discuss the meaning of mathematics and the undergraduate math major. 

“Math is a way of boiling down the fluff in a complex situation — boiling it down to the fundamental structure underlying the problem — learning how to think about complex themes in a logical fashion,” he said.

Mathematics underlies almost every process and interaction of our daily lives. It is rather difficult to find an instance where we do not rely on the logic and reasoning characteristic of mathematics. From driving financial marketplaces to making automobiles, mathematics is ever-present. Mathematics at Hopkins follows this trend and serves as a great field of study on its own as well as in combination with almost any other major. 

“Many of our majors are double majors — in fact, more than half of them,” Brown said.

This also reaffirms the general flexibility that the Hopkins curriculum allows.

“One of the cultural strengths of Hopkins is you don’t have to choose a department and define yourself by them. You can choose who you want to be and find the department that addresses that,” Brown said.

With about 75 percent of the freshman class taking a math course in their first semester at Hopkins, the opportunity to experience university-level mathematics is easily found. While many of these courses may be calculation-based such as Calculus, Differential Equations and Linear Algebra, there are honors versions that delve into the more proof-based structures of the topics covered in those courses.

“In fact, completing those calculation-based courses places a student quite close to completing the minor already,” Brown noted. “It is the transition to proof-based mathematics where many students begin working with logical structures.” 

This transition highlights the development of the logical reasoning that guides mathematicians through the problems they aim to solve.

An analytical approach to solving problems provides mathematicians with the skillset to pursue opportunities in places such as think tanks, Wall Street firms, research laboratories, engineering projects, government organizations and more. Mathematicians develop a way of thinking that is necessary to innovatively tackle the problems of these fields.

Thus, many math students join these professions after graduating. Many also continue to graduate school in mathematics or related fields such physics or engineering. Outside of taking the required courses for the major, interested students also have the option of conducting research in mathematics. As there are no laboratories in mathematics, in the traditional sense of the word, it is slightly difficult to begin research from day one. While students often need to complete foundational coursework in proof-based mathematics before joining a research group working on specific ideas, the opportunities are certainly available and promoted for joining such endeavors.

The Mathematics department is relatively small compared to others which makes pursuing research opportunities a more organic process. Even conversations with professors may uncover a specific interest in mathematics for the student.

There is also a directed reading program where undergraduate students have the opportunity to work with graduate students on any topic they agree upon. 

“It is a sort of mentorship program,” Brown said. “It doesn’t even have to be research, just anything that is not usually covered in the curriculum.” 

Ex Numera, the Hopkins Mathematics Club, also provides a multitude of options to learn more about the field and serves as a space to meet other students interested in mathematics. A quick stop at their website can help a student find outside resources for mathematics as well as information on the high school and middle school math competition that the club organizes annually.

Brown also mentioned that the department and the club are also always looking to find new, creative approaches for community outreach; students can contact the club to join those efforts.

Mathematics underlies a number of professions and fields of study. Mathematics could, in fact, be treated as a verb — a way to solve complex problems in any situation that life presents. If you liked math at some point in your studies, it may certainly be worth pursuing to see if you can rekindle that passion. 

“One thing any student should do in their first and second years is to think very creatively about exploring who you really want to be,” Brown noted. ”In the end, there is value in every discipline, and math can always serve to complement those values.”

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