back to news April 1, 2014

Mathematician Wins NSF-CAREER Award

For someone who took a circuitous path to a research career in mathematics, Matthew Kahle, assistant professor of mathematics, landed on the fast-track.

Kahle was a late bloomer by all accepted standards. He did not excel in high school, dropped out of college, did manual labor for a while. He was 34 when he received his PhD. He has made up for lost time in a monumental way.

Two years ago, Kahle won a Sloan Fellowship.

“When we hired Matt Kahle as an assistant professor, we knew that we had made an extraordinarily good junior hire,” mathematics chair Luis Casian said. “He was already considered a leader in the exciting new field of random topology, which combines probability and topology to study the probability that certain shapes may arise in different contexts—for example in biology or physics.“

Now, he has won another major award: the NSF-CAREER.

Both awards are famously hard to get. The Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship supports U.S. and Canadian early-career scientists and scholars whose achievements and ability identify them as the next generation of scientific leaders.  

The NSF-CAREER AWARD is the highest award the National Science Foundation gives to support the work of junior faculty members. Those selected exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.

KAHLE is receiving a five-year $450,000 grant for his project, "Random spaces and groups," funded by NSF programs in "Geometric analysis & topology" and "Probability & combinatorics."

Part of the grant will support the work of Kahle's graduate students, giving them time to work on their dissertations. He also intends to expand the number of undergraduate researchers in his group. “I plan to hire another one or two undergraduates to work with me this summer. Supervising undergraduate research projects is something I enjoy, especially being able to give them creative freedom and a taste of discovery.”

Kahle knows the value of mentorship and reaching out to younger students who may be tentative and fearful about math. Recently a student taking one of Kahle’s undergraduate courses changed his major to mathematics.

Upon receiving the Sloan, Kahle gave credit to “…all the great mentors I have had—my graduate advisors and my postdoctoral mentors. I learned so many things from all of them, about math and about life in general.”

Kahle would like to add more graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to his group. “Having a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, visiting and regular faculty is an ideal situation. Everyone brings a different perspective, and everyone can learn from one another.”

Two of Kahle’s PhD students will be graduating soon, and he is currently writing a paper with an undergraduate researcher.

“Mathematics has a long tradition of placing value on mentoring,” Kahle said. “Now as a teacher and advisor, I realize how great it is to have good students, and you learn from them as well.”

There is a common myth, perpetuated by popular culture, that the greatest mathematicians do their best research at a very early age, peaking by the time they are 30 and then are done. Kahle begs to differ.

“I think part of being a mathematician—at any age,” Kahle said, “is sheer stubbornness and being willing to be stumped by a problem for months, or years.”

It is hard to imagine that Kahle would ever let any problem—or age—stop him.

Kahle received his PhD in mathematics from the University of Washington in 2007. He was awarded the Samuelson Postdoctoral Fellowship at Stanford for 2007-10, and was a member at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton from 2010-2011.

For much of this semester, Kahle has been a long-term visitor at the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications (IMA), an NSF-funded visitors’ institute located on the University of Minnesota campus. The IMA has no permanent faculty, but a flux of visiting scientists, engineers and mathematicians who come together to address scientific and technological challenges in a collaborative environment.  Kahle returns to campus in early May.

--Sandi Rutkowski, Arts and Sciences Communications