Dublin High School Class of 2006 Alum Travis Scrimshaw Turns Love of Math into a UC Davis PhD
We continue our Life After College Series with a focus on excellence in mathematics. Dublin High School Class of 2006 alum Travis Scrimshaw received a Phd in Math from UC Davis in June and will begin a two year post doc position at the University of Minnesota. Travis has had the opportunity to participate in math conferences and projects all over the world including Japan, South Korea, India and Iceland. We recently caught up with Travis between trips to learn more about his passion for math.
OneDublin: What sparked your interest in math?
Travis Scrimshaw: “It started as something I was good at. When I was in high school, I was interested in creating video games, and I needed to learn more math in order to apply it to create the graphics and physics engines for games. The biggest decision I had to make was choosing between mathematics and computer science for my major. From this point it was down the mathematical rabbit hole, and I grew more and more interested in math the more I learned.”
OneDublin: For many students, especially in high school, math is a struggle. Was there a teacher or teachers, in high school or beyond, that reinforced your interest in math?
Scrimshaw: “Actually the first teachers that come to my mind are my 4th grade teachers, Mrs. Peterson and Mrs. Snyder. They gave me more challenging problems and pushed me to improve my abilities in math. However, the biggest influence I would say is Mrs. Hall during my Junior year in high school. One thing I distinctly remember was when I had a question about how to derive a rotation matrix. She brought in one of her college textbooks for me to read.”
OneDublin.org: As a follow-up, math gets a bad rap not only for being hard, but also for being “not fun”. What makes math fun for you?
Scrimshaw: “Short version: it’s not calculus. There are a lot of problems in a variety of different areas of mathematics, some of which can be explained to elementary school kids. That’s not to say they are easy; in fact, some of these problems have remained unsolved for decades. Those that have been solved required deep mathematical insights, but that doesn’t mean that these problems can’t be explored by those without training in math. That’s what makes math fun to me, I can choose problems that are fun and interesting.”
OneDublin.org: Of the many math problems you’ve had to untangle are there any problems that stand out, and why?
Scrimshaw: “The irony of the word tangle. I have looked at what are known as braid groups. So imagine you have a disk with ‘n’ marked points. Now make a copy of that disk and connect the marked points on one disk with the other with string. This is a braid to a mathematician. You can connect two braids together by tying the strings at each of the marked points together and removing the disk in the middle, and so you get a new braid. A generalization of this was the first problem I started working on, and it turns out to be related to what I am currently working on. It was a surprising relationship to me and is why it stands out to me.”
OneDublin.org: Did you ever hit a wall, where you weren’t sure if you’d be able to get to the next level? And if you did reach that wall, how did you overcome it?
Scrimshaw: “Yes and no. Math is so broad and I can do somethings easier than others. I’m fairly weak in analysis, which you can think of as calculus and limits, but I’m much better at algebra, such as manipulating polynomials and equations. So when I come to high walls, I just moved around them. For smaller walls that I knew I could overcome, it was just studying and working at it. I can see my limitations in my abilities, and as a result, I try not to set my expectations too high in regards to my career. That’s not to say I don’t try to actually make the next big breakthrough, but I find satisfaction in doing my job and contributing to advancing mathematical theory and the next generation of mathematicians.”
OneDublin.org: For students that are struggling with math, esp. in high school, what advice do you have?
Scrimshaw: “Don’t treat math any differently than you would any other class. I am amazed at how students approach studying for math differently than their other classes. I think one of the best ways is to treat mathematics like a language class. Learn the vocabulary and how it fits together to tell a story. How do you learn vocabulary? You learn its definition and then look at lots of examples of how it is used. However, math has an advantage because often you learn a set of tools, analogous to vocabulary, and there is only one or two that works. In summary, don’t overthink it and don’t treat math as some big intimidating subject.”
OneDublin.org: At what point did you realize that you’d like to continue beyond undergraduate studies all the way to a PhD?
Scrimshaw: “Between my Sophomore and Junior years after I did a summer REU (research experience for undergraduates). I wanted to continue to do math research and make that my career after that summer, and to do that, I needed a PhD.”
OneDublin.org: How does pursuing a PhD differ from undergraduate and graduate studies?
Scrimshaw: “In the US, at least in the sciences that I know, pursuing a masters and a PhD are both considered as graduate studies as the majority of students go directly from an undergraduate program to a PhD program. However the biggest difference is that graduate students are paid, although it is typically for doing TA work. There is also only one to two years worth of classes to take, and you typically aren’t doing a full course load. It gets interspersed with seminars where you aren’t there so much to be able to understand every word, but to get acquainted with the language. Then for the remaining years, there are little to no classes, but instead you have to work on research and finishing your thesis, including going to seminars and conferences.”
OneDublin.org: For some disciplines, like engineering, math is an applied tool used to solve problems. How does applied math differ from pure math?
Scrimshaw: “It’s a spectrum, albeit with a somewhat well-defined division where people start saying something is applied math and something is pure math. My current research is considered to be pure math, but it is very close to an application in mathematical physics. There have been times where pure math has had very unexpected applications to physics. For example, there’s a well-known joke in mathematics that a topologist can’t tell the difference between a coffee cup and an donut. To the topologist, everything is made out of playdough, and so they both have one hole. However topology, which was considered a very pure math subject, ended up being very useful to cosmology and quantum field theory.”
OneDublin.org: You’ve had a chance to travel the world participating in conferences with your peers in mathematics.
Scrimshaw: “I’ve gone to quite a number of different places for conferences: Japan, Iceland, South Korea, Canada, and most of mainland Europe. I also ended up making a lot of friends and collaborators at these conferences. While conferences are fun to attend, and often times their is funding for students and postdocs for attendance, they are also very useful for research/work. Conferences are places where you learn what other mathematicians are doing from their talks and/or poster, meet and talk with them in person to discuss their work, and tell other people what I am working on. I think attending conferences has been one of the largest contributions to my success, where I have been able to develop connections and stay current on active areas of research.”
OneDublin.org: Finally, your UC Davis profile page notes that you’ll be starting a 2-year postdoc at the University of Minnesota. For those unfamiliar with a postdoc describe what you’ll be working on.
Scrimshaw: “A postdoc is a temporary position that is meant for people after they have finished their doctorate degree, hence the name, but before they get a tenure track position. It is a position with less responsibilities, both in teaching and most notably in the department, in order to conduct more research and to build up their resume for that tenure track position. So I will be working on my research and talking with the faculty and other postdocs at the University of Minnesota.”