The stereotype of a mathematician is someone alone in an attic busily doing calculations. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is really a special culture about collaboration.

Peter McNamara

"The stereotype of a mathematician is someone alone in an attic busily doing calculations," says Professor Peter McNamara. "Nothing could be further from the truth. It is really a special culture about collaboration."

McNamara has published some 20 professional papers, and in them has worked with nearly two dozen co-authors. With his students, too, McNamara tries to reinforce personal interaction, both in and outside the classroom.

"My favorite part of the job is seeing students around campus. Sometimes serendipitously, something about math will come up," he says. "And I love when they come to office hours. We can interact on a level we wouldn't in the classroom, and they can ask questions they might not ask elsewhere."

McNamara wants each of his students to meet with him during the first week of class. Interactions like these, he says, are the reason people come to Bucknell, both to teach and learn. Teachers, even of seemingly remote subjects like mathematics, give a personal touch.

McNamara also likes to look for the fun in math, encouraging his students to participate in math competitions such as the national Putnam Exam for college students, and organizing competitions on campus for middle school students from around central Pennsylvania. He even started a half-credit class for students who want to become more proficient in these games and contests.

All of this encourages students to view mathematics as McNamara does, as collaborative, not insular.

"Math is different from other fields in how it lists authors of papers," he says. "Most try to find who did the most work and put them first. In math, it is alphabetical. The assumption is that everyone's work builds on what has been there before."

The collaborative nature of the mathematical field, he says, is a benefit when faced with frustration — a common state for a mathematician.

"The normal state of mathematics is being stuck," he says. "You make some progress and then you get stuck again. But then you might see where someone else is headed and you follow their lead, and when you reach a breakthrough, it's wonderful.

Posted Sept. 22, 2017

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