UMTYMP Alumni Profile: Dr. Michael Barany

Dr. Michael Barany is a Senior Lecturer in the History of Science at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. His education journey started here in the Twin Cities metro area, where Michael was an UMTYMP student. We caught up with Michael in an interview – read on to see how he says UMTYMP impacted him as a student and about his career as a historian of science and mathematics.

Q: Please share a bit about your career & profession – how did you get into your career and what excites you most about it?

MB: I am Senior Lecturer in the History of Science at the University of Edinburgh, which is to Scotland much like the U is to Minnesota. I teach introductory and advanced classes in the history of science and also work with advanced mathematical students on understanding the social contexts and implications of their work. My research focuses on the history and sociology of modern mathematics, including a major project to understand the globalization of mathematical research in the last century. I am really excited by all the different perspectives this work combines to understand what makes mathematics possible, from the political and financial to the technological and cultural. It is meaningful to me to see my findings change how mathematicians, students, and others see mathematics, and perhaps imagine different futures for the subject. An example of this is a major reinterpretation I proposed of the early history and meaning of the Fields Medal, a famous prize in mathematics; this has since been shared back to me as conventional wisdom, and has also had some effect on current mathematicians' thinking about prizes and careers.

My path to this career starts in many ways with UMTYMP, which meant that by the time I left for college (at Cornell University) I was already comfortable in mathematics departments and also had a head start on my coursework. This gave me the freedom to explore advanced mathematics and also subjects like literature, anthropology, and history. History of Science ended up as a field where I could combine these interests without having to lose contact with the mathematics community. I found a lot more motivation and success trying to understand how others make and do mathematics, rather than trying to do so myself.

Q: Where in Minnesota did you grow up? Are you still connected to the Twin Cities area?

MB: I grew up in Falcon Heights and went to Roseville Area High School, starting UMTYMP while at Parkview Center School in the same district. I have not been back much since high school, which means I miss the snow and the skating and the State Fair and the U.

Q: How would you describe your experience as an UMTYMP student? What still stands out to you about the program over the years and which pieces of the experience were most valuable to you?

MB: Of course the defining feature for many UMTYMP students is the homework, and learning to work my way through the problem sets and write up clear solutions was a big adjustment with a broad effect on my experience of middle and high school. I still remember some especially challenging ones, such as a linear algebra problem set with large matrix calculations where small mistakes could lead to big troubles later on, or a geometry assignment that was my first experience of a shockingly small number of mathematics problems taking so much time and space to answer correctly.

I've just re-read my short speech from my UMTYMP graduation. At the time, the connection between pure mathematics and applications stood out to me, and I was excited by the idea that the mathematical thinking I learned in UMTYMP seemed to show up in so many other parts of my life, academic and otherwise. Looking back, I wonder how much of that feeling was specific to the mathematics we learned and how much owed to the less-math-specific thrills and rewards of being part of a community of students and educators organized around cultivating a single disciplinary foundation over several years.

I feel like I was one of the sorts of students for whom UMTYMP was designed: confident I could and should do mathematics (with access to people I could ask when I got stuck), able to give the necessary time to the homework and to learn its lessons, comfortable on a college campus and eager to test myself in that environment. This helped me come out of the program ready to take more classes in the math department at the U while in high school, and to major in mathematics in college, based on preparation that was not just technical but also had cultural, personal, and other dimensions. I know MathCEP does a lot of work to support students who don't come to UMTYMP with those kinds of advantages, or who have different ideal outcomes.

The high pace of both activity and feedback was very effective at developing a lot of mathematical skills very quickly; this is a very demanding approach on both students and instructors, generally in good ways. I know there are lively debates in mathematics education about the appropriate place of exploration in the curriculum and the different skills and pedagogies it requires, and that is something I have been thinking a lot about in my own history of science teaching.

Q: How might UMTYMP continue to better serve and prepare its alumni?

MB: I tend to think the best service UMTYMP gives to its alumni is the education they receive before they are alumni. One lesson from my historical research that I bring to my history of science teaching is that it makes a big difference how one learns scientifically foundational fields such as calculus, precisely because they are incorporated in so many different ways into so many other fields built on top of them.

Q:  What advice might you give to current UMTYMP students?

MB: You are not just learning mathematics in UMTYMP. One of the things that makes the program special is its method of building skills and knowledge, and actively committing to each part of that method will make the program's lessons all the more effective and valuable.