Professor Oliver Bernardi, the chair of Brandeis University’s mathematics department, sat down for an interview with The Brandeis Hoot to shed a little light on the department, its future and himself. This interview is part of a series of interviews with the chairs of a plethora of different academic departments and programs at Brandeis.
Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted during the 2022 spring semester.
Why did you choose to come to Brandeis?
I chose to come to Brandeis because there is a very strong mathematics department; the research in Brandeis’s mathematics department is very well known. When I came [to Brandeis], one of the main figures in combinatorics was at Brandeis, Professor Ira Gessel, so that played a big role in my choice.
What do you think that the mathematics department does right?
I think that the mathematics department is very wise with its hiring decisions. It has been able to maintain strength in research despite very few hirings. We hope that there are more hirings to come and that we can rebuild a bigger department around that core .… Development recently has been [centered upon] the applied math program. I think this [program] has been a very big success because we’ve been able to roll out a new major which has proved very popular with graduate and undergraduate students.
What do you think that the math department could do better?
I think that the math department in general could do better at several levels. We are still understaffed, we should try to offer more classes, some of the majors are a little bit constrained at the moment because of the lack of classes. We want to offer more advanced classes like research-oriented classes that have become very important at many institutions, and I think we should not be left behind .… This year, we’ll start an initiative known as the “Math Mentoring Program.” We hope to be more inclusive, by having students that are considering the major have someone monitoring them or getting them through that process, [Additionally], if possible we hope to have more community events. These have been almost absent during the pandemic, so we hope that we can restart them.
What can you tell me about the applied mathematics program?
It’s a very new program, but it’s already in full swing. There are a lot of undergraduates that are taking [applied math] as a major, about seven percent of Brandeis students [as of Feb. 10, 2022]. We expect that the program is going to grow further because it’s a quality offering. We hope that we are able to offer the core classes more often and make it more flexible for students.
Is there anything that you think could have gone better with the rollout of the applied mathematics program?
We were very pleased that the university supported our mission. They gave us three faculty members that could serve as a core of this applied math group. We do hope that this is going to grow and that we can have more offerings, but given the resources and the size of Brandeis, I think we did quite well.
Why does the mathematics department offer both a B.A. and a B.S. degree?
Our traditional degree was a Bachelor of Arts. We recently added the Bachelor of Science because we thought that it was good to give some flexibility to students. Many students at Brandeis are double majoring, so having [just one kind of degree] would’ve been a disservice [to the students].
What role will the math department play in the creation of the engineering program?
It’s not completely clear at this point, but we hope that we’re going to play a big role. It’s a very natural extension of the math program .… We certainly hope that this is going to be an opportunity to offer a greater variety of classes and to create new connections between departments. Hopefully, this new engineering program is a hub that gathers people from physics, computer science, math, biology [and other departments too].
How do you feel that Brandeis’s mathematics department distinguishes itself from other universities’ mathematics departments?
We have a department that is very creative. There is a very good atmosphere in the department and a good structure of governance. There’s a very big collaborative effort in terms of hiring and what direction we’d like to go in. I think that distinguishes Brandeis. In my case, I came here because of the strengths of the faculty. This is a very fine balance for a department of our size in terms of covering enough of the spectrum of math, but still maintaining this communication between faculty. With applied math in particular, we have a very good connection between the applied math and pure math faculty. We want to maintain this equation; having the applied math program being not separate from, but integral to, the department.
What about combinatorics interests you?
I think that what attracted me to the field is the kind of detective aspect to it. You very often stumble on some unexpected properties of mathematical objects, some counting formula or some probabilistic aspect that looks very beautiful. You’re in this situation of trying to unravel why this thing is happening, what’s the fundamental reason behind it? That’s my drive to it: this kind of puzzle solving.