Samuel S. Watson (B.S. in Mathematics and Physics, B.A. in Classics, 2008; M.S. in Mathematics, 2009) earned several academic awards as an undergraduate, including a Goldwater Scholarship and Gates Cambridge Scholarship to study mathematics at the University of Cambridge. He then received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to complete his PhD in mathematics at MIT. Dr. Watson is now a Tamarkin Assistant Professor in the mathematics department and the Director of Graduate Studies in the Data Science Initiative at Brown University. He researches fractal curves and surfaces which emerge from the study of geometric arrangements of microscopic randomness, and he trains master’s students from a variety of backgrounds for careers in data science.
How did your interest in mathematics develop?
My interest in math was kindled by my 7th grade math teacher Ann Womble. She introduced me to math competitions (Mathcounts and ARML), and I was drawn to the creativity and intellectual challenge of problem solving. In high school and college, my math experiences became more collaborative, with responsibilities like coaching math teams, teaching classes, and developing material for contests. I felt confident continuing to pursue my educational opportunities in math, because I enjoyed both the individual and the community aspects of the subject.
Why study math in college?
There are many profiles of student for whom studying math is especially worth considering. At one end of the spectrum, if you love doing math and like to travel, you can pursue the math grad school route and have a great time doing intellectually satisfying work in a socially supportive and respectful environment. Even if you don’t want to be beholden to the academic job market, you’ve spent years honing your problem solving skills and will have a chance to transfer those skills to another pursuit (although I would advise sustaining a variety of marketable interests).
At the other end of the spectrum, a student might be very interested in a subject which historically hasn’t been particularly mathematical. The thing to keep in mind is that it’s difficult to anticipate when math might become a valuable or even critical tool in any given field of study. Social sciences, humanities, business, and finance, for example, have been increasingly recognizing ways to quantify matters of interest and leverage mathematical and statistical techniques to shed new light on old questions. Even chemists and biologists have witnessed an uptick in the mathematical sophistication that can be broadly leveraged in their fields. Many folks find that they want to pursue these developments without having to go back and fill in an undergraduate education’s worth of math.
Why should a person looking to study math in college consider the University of Mississippi?
I found the math department at Ole Miss to be an incredibly welcoming and generous community. Many of the professors care deeply about being effective instructors, and there are abundant opportunities for mentorship and support of one’s individual learning initiatives. Having compared notes with my colleagues who completed their undergraduate education in more typical math departments, it seems fair to say that there are advantages and disadvantages, but I personally found the flexibility and face time with professors to be formative in a way that I think being part of a larger cohort and having a bit broader course selection would not have been.