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Award-winning instructor shares passion for mathematics

| Gary Johnson

Carolyn Otto

Dr. Carolyn Otto

Dr. Carolyn Otto is passionate about sharing her love of mathematics with others.

While an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Otto’s research experiences reinforced her belief that she should become a math instructor. As a student, she was able to collaborate with various faculty members in the physics and mathematics departments, traveling to present her work on national and international levels.

“Now that I am a professor, I want to supply my students with the same opportunities as I was able to experience,” Otto says of her mentoring philosophy.

The national Council on Undergraduate Research has announced Otto, associate professor of mathematics at UW-Eau Claire, as the winner of its math and computer science division’s 2020 Mid-Career Mentoring Award.

“I’m really surprised and very honored and humbled by that,” Otto says of the award. “I know two other people who won last year and to be in that category is almost unfathomable.”

Otto grew up in Phillips, a community of about 1,600 people in northern Wisconsin, and says she was not aware of the opportunities mathematics and research could provide students. She started working on research projects as a freshman at UW-Eau Claire.

“Being a part of projects where there was no answer lit a fire,” Otto says. “It opened my eyes up to a whole new world.”

Otto graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a minor in computational science. She received her master’s degree and Ph.D. in mathematics from Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Otto has developed her own culture of research with students based on what she has found successful.

“Providing a safe space for learning is very important,” Otto says. “I listen to the students, show my support, and I help them when I am able. Most importantly, I am honest with them; I inform them when they are doing well, and I tell them when I expect more. At the beginning of the project, together we discuss reasonable goals for our project as well as expectations for the students and the mentor.”

Otto, whose primary area of study is knot theory, has mentored more than 50 students in 36 research projects in her more than nine years as a UW-Eau Claire instructor. Among the students are:

• Nineteen UW-Eau Claire Office of Research and Sponsored Programs-funded research students.
• Four National Science Foundation-funded research students.
• Thirty-nine Math 380 research method students.

During many of Otto’s collaborative projects with students, she has been both a mentor and research team member.

“I show the students I am in this journey with them,” Otto says. “We share the success and frustrations, which I believe to be valuable for the students. Just knowing that I also do not immediately know the answers gives them a window into what it is like to be a research mathematician.”

Dr. Alex Smith, chair of the mathematics department, praised Otto’s undergraduate research mentorship work.

“Many undergraduates have not formed a concept of research, especially students at a comprehensive public institution such as UWEC, where almost 30% of our undergraduates are first-generation college students,” Smith says. “Thus, we need to be intentional in explaining the opportunity to engage in this high-impact practice, and ensure that all students know and feel that they have access. Carolyn, through her professional and interpersonal skills, takes a leadership role in the department with this challenge of providing equitable access to undergraduate research.”

Otto’s students have excelled at UW-Eau Claire and beyond.

One of her former students, Dawn Paukner, says Otto put in the time and effort to allow students to grow as researchers. She helped Paukner become confident enough to approach other professors and graduate students outside her department and the university.

“I can say with complete confidence that I would not be here were it not for her, and I know that many other students can say likewise about their own successes,” says Paukner, who is in a fully funded Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago.

Another former student, Danielle Brushaber, says Otto was interested in empowering her undergraduate researchers and modeled inclusivity, diversity and empathy in her teaching.

“Our weekly meetings were threaded with discussions of mental health, the challenges of student life and cultivating understanding of others’ experiences,” Brushaber says.

Dr. Catherine Chan, executive director of UW-Eau Claire’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, praised Otto’s work with undergraduates.

“As a research mentor, Dr. Otto is systematic in fostering the growth of her mentees, not just in their research skills but also in developing their self-efficacy,” Chan says. “She has also taken the lead in expanding undergraduate research into the credit-bearing curriculum within the mathematics department. This is a very significant step toward further improving the learning experiences of our students and ensuring equitable access to high-impact educational practices, such as mentored research, to all students.”

Top photo caption: Dr. Carolyn Otto, left, works with UW-Eau Claire mathematics students Nellie Brushaber and Molly Petersen.