New Profs Anticipate Swarthmore

The Gazette recently interviewed four professors who will be starting in fall 2009. One, Eric Song, will work in the English Department, and the other three—Sarah Hews, Kevin Ross and Lynne Steuerle Schofield ‘99—will teach courses in Math/Stat.

provided by Song

Professor Eric Song, a graduate of UVA, UChicago and Pomona, will be teaching an English FYS, “Narcissus and the History of Reflection,” as well as upper-level courses on various branches of Renaissance literature. He has taught for two years at Queens College CUNY.

DG: What are you working on currently?

ES: My work focuses on seventeenth-century English literature, and my current project traces a central dilemma that generates much of the energy of John Milton’s later writings. Works such as Paradise Lost describe how order and civility must be imposed upon unruly forces but, on the other hand, can never truly succeed. This double bind connects Milton’s theological, political, and artistic modes of thinking.

God, for example, creates by taming and expelling the eternal muck of chaos, but chaotic remnants keep popping up as forces that disrupt God’s kingdom. In fact, the allegorical figure of Chaos speaks, and he questions the fairness of what God’s been up to! One of my chapters shows how allusions to the so-called Eastern Tartars connects this account of creation to geopolitical concerns. The double bind in Milton’s thinking means that he’s critical about any simple dichotomy between Western civilization versus Eastern barbarism, but he can’t easily abandon it.

DG: Who’s your favorite author?

ES: As a card-carrying member of the Milton Society of America (okay, we don’t actually have cards), I’d be in trouble if I didn’t name Milton as my favorite. But I also love reading, teaching, and writing about George Herbert, who is very different from Milton in artistic and political temperament. (The same could be said of Shakespeare.)

DG: Does your interest in the Narcissus myth come from personal experiences with narcissists?

ES: I’m interested in the Narcissus myth because I know I’m a narcissist! “Narcissist” is a dirty accusation, but if someone were to say, “Well, I know I’m not a narcissist,” we’d immediately suspect that person of being deluded or a liar. Being full of oneself to some degree is a basic part of what it means to be a modern subject. The first-year seminar I’ll be offering will attempt to trace the history of narcissism—the way that works ranging from Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the DSM IV borrow from the Narcissus myth to define personhood. This course reflects a habit of thought in my teaching and writing: I think it’s important to consider how even our most familiar notions have deep and surprising histories, and how our world has been shaped by new configurations of old ideas.

provided by Hews

Sarah Hews went to UMichigan and will soon receive her PhD from Arizona State University. As a joint hire by the Math/Stat and Bio Departments, she will be Swarthmore’s first Biomathematics Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow. She’ll start by teaching Modeling, Math 56.

DG: Could you tell me about what you’re currently working on, and what you’ll be teaching at Swarthmore?

SH: I’m currently working on two projects that both use differential equations: optimizing the amount of biofuel produced by algae and determining the factors that lead to HBV prognosis. I’ll be bringing some of this material into the course I’m teaching, Modeling ~ Math 056, where we’ll discuss different mathematical modeling techniques with applications primarily, but not limited to, biology.

DG: How do you think students focusing on math or bio will benefit from studying the other field?

SH: Students focusing on math will be able to see an application for their skills that they might not be aware of. Modeling in particular can offer insight into biological processes that we don’t completely understand. In addition, the biological models can motivate some interesting mathematical problems! We still need mathematicians to develop more techniques to analyze these models that we build. Students focusing on biology will find math useful to develop their critical thinking and understanding of complex systems. Specifically, it helps bio students step back from the small details and understand the big dynamics. I’ve also found that working in a bio/chem lab can help students who are struggling in math. It helps them develop confidence and patience that are crucial to succeeding in math.

DG: How are you feeling about coming to Swarthmore?

SH: I’m thrilled to be coming to Swarthmore. I’ve always been at extremely large state schools and I’m looking forward to belonging to a small supportive community that values and enjoys learning.

DG: And of course, what’s your favorite equation (and why)?

SH: This is a very difficult question. I’d have to say the logistic growth equation, f(x)=rx(1-x/K) It’s an extremely versatile equation with extensive applications. For a more detailed answer, you’ll have to take my class!

provided by Ross

Kevin Ross is a graduate of U North Carolina and is currently a post-doc at Stanford; he’s an expert on optimal control. He will be teaching Stat 61 in the fall and Stat 11 and another course (TBD) in the spring.

DG: Could you tell me about what you’re currently working on?

KR: My research is in probability and statistics. My main area of interest is stochastic optimal control, which involves seeking the best strategy for making decisions when you’re faced with uncertainty. The game show “Deal or No Deal” provides a simple example of a stochastic optimal control problem. Another example is investing in the stock market: At each point in time you need to decide how much money to invest in the market (or put in the bank) in order to maximize some criteria (say your total wealth after one year), but you don’t know if the market is going to go up or down in the future. Some of the problems I’m currently working on come from financial mathematics and stochastic network theory (which has applications in a variety of disciplines, including telecommunications, computing, and manufacturing). One goal of my research is to find or somehow characterize an optimal decision strategy, but in most problems this is extremely difficult and there is usually not a simple equation which gives you the best strategy. A more practical component of my research involves developing numerical procedures for computing an optimal, or at least a nearly-optimal, strategy.

DG: How are you feeling about coming to Swarthmore?

KR: I’m excited to be coming to Swarthmore. I really enjoyed my campus visit and I think I will fit in well at Swarthmore. I love teaching and I am happy to be moving to a college which places a high value on undergraduate education. On a personal note, I’m originally from South Jersey, I worked in Philly for a few years, and I have lots of friends and family in the Philly area – so I’m happy to be coming back east.

DG: And of course, what’s your favorite equation (and why)?

KR: Two of my favorites are the equations for the circumference and area of a circle. Even though they’re among the earliest formulas that we learn in school, they introduce us to the “mysterious” number pi.

provided by Schofield

Lynne Steuerle Schofield ’99 is a graduate of Swarthmore and Carnegie Mellon. She is an expert in policy studies, and will be teaching statistics, starting with Stat 11 and Stat 31.

DG: Could you tell me about what you’re currently working on?

LSS: Currently, I am working on the development of a model that allows social scientists to use cognitive test scores (like the SATs or GREs) as predictor variables in their analyses. Up until now, social scientists have not been taking into account the measurement error in the test score and this can cause bias in their results. (Measurement error is the error associated with the test score that can come from having a bad test day, to the room being too hot, etc, and if you remember when you took the SATs, your score report said you got your score +/- 30 or so points. That 30 or so points is the measurement error.)

In addition, I am working on evaluating some educational programs in the School District of Philadelphia with some colleagues at Temple University to determine if these programs are effective.

DG: How do you see your work being applied to policy or research in the social sciences?

LSS: I see my research as helping policy researchers come up with better ways to analyze the data that exists. My interests lie in developing better statistical models so that social science research better informs policy experts, which would hopefully lead to better policy.

DG: Do you think non-math/stat majors would benefit from taking your classes?

LSS: Absolutely! I think I am well positioned to teach non-math/stat majors because like many of them, I am interested in problems outside of math/stat. I like applying statistics and statistical models to problems in the social sciences. I hope many non-majors will take my classes so that together we can determine how statistics can be used to help us think more clearly about problems in the social sciences.

DG: How are you feeling about coming to Swarthmore?

LSS: I’m really excited. I am an alum myself (class of ’99) and I am thrilled to return to Swarthmore.

DG: And of course, what’s your favorite equation (and why)?

LSS: This is by far your hardest question! However, I think I would say that my favorite equation is pi=circumference/diameter which gives us the number pi=3.14159… I like this equation not just because it is amazingly true for ANY circle, but also because it means that every 3/14, I celebrate “Pi Day” and eat pie myself in honor of this great number.

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  1. 0
    abc says:

    The flexibility afforded by having multiple sections of stat 11 and other math/stat courses is what saves the school from having scheduling meltdowns every semester. So many students from so many disciplines take stat 11 that you couldn't offer it at one time without shutting out all bio students, or else all chem students, or else all engineering students, etc. So while i agree that it could probably just as easily be taught with bigger enrollments, it just won't work — other departments rely on math/stat offering multiple sections to make everybody's schedules work.

  2. 0
    hmm says:

    Anyone else think it's strange to put so many resources into Stat 11, when it's a class many people take because they have to for distribution/because it's easy? Why don't they just teach large sections of it and then break into problem sessions? I feel like hiring lots of statisticians to teach many sections of 11 is less useful than hiring professors who will teach courses not already offered at Swat (like that biostat course).

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