Math and Space: It's All in the Numbers
According to Jan Élise Holly, professor of mathematics and statistics, the most obvious thing for someone with a Ph.D in math to do is to become a professor. Researching spatial disorientation and collaborating with NASA? Not so obvious.
What is your primary research focus?
My research is on spatial disorientation—how people become disoriented either because they have an inner-ear disorder or because maybe they are a pilot disoriented by g-forces. NASA is interested in this because astronauts experience disorientation and have trouble walking when they come back to Earth from space.
That sounds complicated. What are some of the challenges you face?
The most challenging part is cross-cultural communication in the sense of communication between the different disciplines. Each discipline, such as math or biology, has different conventions and values, which is fine, but it becomes a real challenge when people don't realize this.
What’s the role of math in all of this?
Math is a way to write down what you are thinking. If you know the math, it gives you a way to work with the description in a formal way and to then actually make a prediction.… Really, the most rewarding part is the fun of working with the math. Math has nice structure that is great fun to explore.
Is it strange going from working with NASA to teaching college students?
I like teaching different classes. I like the upper-level classes because you can do a lot of complicated stuff with the students. But I also like lower-level classes too because it is a fun challenge to introduce math to students. I really want everyone to see math.
So you can encourage them to become math majors?
I don’t necessarily push students to be math majors as much as I push them to do the things in college that they are interested in, since that is going to give them a career they are interested in. I want them to take away logical thinking and to realize they can reason through things that happened. The ability to reason is the biggest thing, not something numerical.
You seem to be a champion of the liberal arts.
I would hope that all colleges and universities do as good a job as we do. We try to teach a lot of the same material [as big universities] but the students [at Colby] often have broader strengths. I’m often pleasantly surprised at how well students write, which I don’t think I would find at a university
What about outside of Colby? Do you have time for anything else?
I live in Waterville with my family of four. My two children [ages 14 and 15] are what take up most of my time outside of Colby. They have a lot of soccer games and violin concerts.
And when the time comes for them to pick a college, do you think they will end up at Colby?
It’s unique that they are able to see what a college is like. We take them to talks, athletic events, classes, musical events.… I don’t know about [them going to] Colby. My older son once said he wouldn’t go to Colby because that’s too obvious. It’s a little early to guess.
Why Colby for you?
When people ask me what I like about Colby the very first thing that always comes to mind are the people, whether it’s the students, faculty, or staff. Of all the places I have been, this is the place that has the most congenial, hardworking, and interesting people.