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UW-Eau Claire Professor Awarded NSF Grant
To Continue Student/Faculty Research
MAILED: Dec. 20, 2001
EAU CLAIRE — Dr. Michael Penkava, assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, doesn't agree with those who believe that undergraduates can't be involved in cutting-edge mathematics research. He's been involving undergraduates in this kind of work for the past four years, and his efforts recently received another nod of approval from the National Science Foundation in the form of a travel grant that will allow him to continue his work for at least three more years.
The NSF and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences first offered the grant program last spring to foster collaboration between American and Hungarian mathematicians. The $9,800 NSF grant will pay for Penkava to travel to Hungary for two weeks twice a year for the next three years to continue doing collaborative work with professor Alice Fialowski of the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. A UW-Eau Claire student will be allowed to accompany Penkava on one of the trips, and the HAS portion of the grant will pay for their lodging and living expenses while in Hungary. Eötvös Loránd, which is hosting the researchers, was founded in 1635 and has a long history of mathematical significance.
Penkava and his student will be researching deformations of algebraic structures, and while the ideas involved might be a bit difficult for anyone not versed in higher mathematics to understand, Penkava's enthusiasm for involving students in his work is not.
"Advanced mathematical research does not always involve advanced ideas," Penkava said. "Simpler ideas can often offer great opportunities for significant research, and sometimes undergraduates can do this work better because they don't have as many biases. They may not have the experience and maturity to understand the larger significance of the all the work they do, but they can often understand a specific local environment and become very knowledgeable in that area," Penkava said, noting that of course one reason for this is that computers can make the calculations necessary for advanced research so much faster and easier than was ever possible before.
Penkava's collaboration with Fialowski began in 1997 with a grant from the National Research Council that encouraged collaboration between American and Eastern European mathematicians. The goal of the collaboration was to generalize some prior work done jointly by Fialowski and Dmitry Fuchs on the deformations of Lie Algebras with a base given by a commutative algebra. Over the past four years Penkava and Fialowski have secured additional grants to continue their research, including several from UW-Eau Claire's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, an Institute of Mathematics in Budapest and this most recent NSF/HAS collaborative grant.
According to Penkava, both collaborators contribute essential aspects of the work. His expertise is in infinity algebras and deformation theory, while Fialowski has experience in deformations of Lie algebras. In January 2001, at their fifth meeting in Budapest, the researchers completed a paper on one research problem, and began work on another. In January 2002, Penkava will travel to Budapest alone, but UW-Eau Claire senior Derek Bodin, Brooklyn Park, Minn., is planning to join him for the summer trip.
Bodin, the fourth UW-Eau Claire undergraduate student to be involved in research with Penkava, said he thinks student/faculty research is especially valuable because it gives students, particularly those who know they are headed for graduate school, a chance to investigate topics related to their major that might not be offered in regular university classes.
"My experience with Dr. Penkava has been very rewarding," Bodin said. "He has been able to teach me in small steps that will eventually lead to our ultimate goal, so I am very excited to travel to Budapest with him this summer. It's the chance of a lifetime, not only to see another part of the world, but to see how we can work with researchers from another culture to pursue a common goal of knowledge."
"This is what is really exciting for students," Penkava said. "It's one thing to study known mathematical concepts, and quite another to be involved in exploring new mathematical territory. This is what really keeps them interested."
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: Dec. 20, 2001