Professor’s Research Spans over Three Decades

Prof. James Propp
Prof. James Propp

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Prof. James Propp of the Department of Mathematical Sciences was recently elected fellow of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) for his “distinguished contributions to mathematics.”

“It's a great honor,” says Propp. “Being specifically cited for my work on combinatorics, probability and exposition as well as my mentorship of undergraduate researchers makes me feel that my fellow mathematicians value this kind of work and esteem my contributions.”

The AMS, founded in 1888 and based in Providence, R.I., has nearly 30,000 individual and 580 institutional members worldwide.

“Lately, I have started reaching out to the mathematically interested public through my blog called ‘Mathematical Enchantments,’ ” says Propp. “Specifically, I’m targeting adults who enjoy math but don’t do it for a living, and also young people who enjoy math and don’t do it for a living, not yet anyway. My aim is to impart a sense of wonder and delight at the surprising destinations that seemingly straightforward lines of thought can transport us to. I want to inspire people of all ages to get down on the floor, metaphorically speaking, and play deeply with simple ideas.”

One of his latest posts, entitled “Believe It, Then Don’t: Toward a Pedagogy of Discomfort,” demonstrates mathematical concepts using simple tasks like packing eggs in a tray or putting envelopes into pigeonholes.

“My most gratifying feedback comes from one mathematician-dad who is home-schooling his two kids,” he notes. “The dad has made videos showing lessons that he does with the kids, based on my blog posts.”

Propp received his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1987. He joined the faculty of the Kennedy College of Sciences in 2006.

“What attracted me to UMass Lowell was its location,” he says. “I also appreciate the collegiality and intelligence of my colleagues in the Math Department and the diligence of the vast majority of students I've taught over the years.”

In 2010, Propp was awarded a $200,000 grant by the National Science Foundation to study “quasi-random” processes. The following year he was awarded a Chancellor's Visiting Professorship to teach and conduct research at UC Berkeley for one semester. “Getting the chance to teach Ph.D. students at the institution that awarded me my doctorate was a great honor and pleasure,” he says.