Mathematician's Research Funding Hits the Decade Mark

In the arcane world of higher mathematics, rare is the mathematician whose research is funded, and even rarer is the mathematics researcher who is continuously funded for 10 years.

But University at Albany professor of mathematics Cristian Lenart will not, ironically, calculate those odds. He is simply happy to be that researcher.

Lenart received a fourth award from the National Science Foundation, marking continuous NSF funding since 2004 to research the development of computational models, based on combinatorial structures, for various areas in algebra and geometry. The funding has also allowed the support of numerous doctoral students as research assistants.

"At the very heart of mathematics," he said, "lies the study of certain geometric objects, such as algebraic varieties and topological spaces. This study is usually very hard, and mathematicians associate certain algebraic structures to the geometric ones. It is here that combinatorics comes into the picture."

Combinatorics, Lenart explained, can be described as the study of arrangements of objects according to specified rules. Usually, simple rules give rise to complex discrete structures, such as various types of puzzles, but it turns out that combinatorial objects are particularly well-suited for encoding complex algebraic or geometrical objects, while combinatorial methods are well suited for related computations.

Lenart spent the 2013-14 academic year at the prestigious Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in Bonn, where his productive year included writing several research papers and delivering 14 talks, mostly in Europe. He received the (SUNY) Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities, and, to cap it off, celebrated his 15th year at the University at Albany.

"Dr. Lenart's research has inspired a decade of students, and this rare and continuous funding from the NSF has allowed them to exercise their creativity in a successful, inspired mathematics lab," said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Edelgard Wulfert.

"The first thing mathematicians hear when revealing our profession, is, 'Wow, math was my worst topic in school, how can you do that?' Lenart said. "We do that because we find it fascinating. When certain structures have a minimal chance to fit together in a certain beautiful way, and we realize that they still do, we want to understand the deeper reasons for which this happens. In this way, we are led to the discovery of new aspects of reality. And whenever we get support for our research, it is more than personal success, it is also a success of our department, college, and university. Any award brings math visibility, attracts students to study it, and narrows the gap between the way in which it is perceived, and the satisfaction they have when getting involved in it."