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Mathematics Department Attracting Top Postdoctoral Fellows

by Heidi Bright Parales

Two postdoctoral mathematicians have selected the University of Kentucky as their choice for continuing research on National Science Foundation fellowships.

Choosing UK is a strong endorsement of the university's standing as a research university and the respect accorded its faculty, says Peter Perry, UK mathematics professor. "Typically, NSF postdoctoral fellows go to such places as Stanford, Berkeley or MIT. Applicants name a proposed institution and postdoctoral adviser as part of the application. The applications are judged not only on the applicant's research record, but also on the fit between the proposed research, the adviser and the institution."

The two fellows are Ruth Gornet, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University, and Edward C. Taylor, who previously held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan. Both chose to work with Perry and Peter Hislop, chair of the UK mathematics department. Gornet earned her doctorate at the University of Washington in St. Louis, and Taylor is a doctoral graduate of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Last year, 30 NSF Mathematical Sciences Postdoctoral Research Fellowships were awarded. Both Taylor's fellowship and Gornet's NSF grant, called a POWRE grant (Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education), were reviewed by a panel of leading scientists.

When asked why she chose to come to UK, Gornet says, "Perry is certainly well respected in the field, and someone I'd met frequently at conferences. My intention for the 18 months I am on leave was to go where I could focus intensely on my research and work closely with experts related to my field. As an added payoff, I'm also geographically closer to my family."

She adds that her research projects at UK are a natural continuation of her current projects, along with projects that would be enhanced by the expertise of the UK mathematics department.

Perry says it is important for a research institution to have excellent young scholars doing research. "One of the distinguishing features of top-20 research departments is a constant stream of talented young scientists who visit and work with senior faculty. Having Ruth and Ed at UK stimulates our own research, keeps us current, and exposes UK students to their work."

Both Gornet and Taylor are working in the area of pure mathematics. Pure mathematics research forms the base from which direct application to technology springs. According to Gornet, "There have been almost no areas of mathematics that weren't, eventually, put to good use in the 'real world.'"

Their area of specialty is spectral geometry. According to Perry, their work is related to the mathematical theory that underlies areas such as medical imaging, damage detection in structures, and seismic techniques for oil exploration.

Spectral geometry involves using an external probe to create an image of what's inside something that one cannot directly observe. For example, ultrasound imaging can be used to determine some features about a growing fetus.

Although Gornet and Taylor are working on different projects, both use "group theory," a language mathematicians use for talking about geometric patterns, in their research. Group theory helps researchers identify the similarities and the differences in the properties of an object being studied.