Ruth Charney is Professor of Mathematics at Brandeis University. After receiving her undergraduate degree from Brandeis, she completed her Ph.D. at Princeton University. She help positions at the University of California, Berkeley, Yale, and Ohio State University before returning to her alma mater in 2003.
She currently serves as Chair of her department and as a Vice President of the American Mathematical Society. Charney claims she was never sure whether she was a topologist or an algebraist, and is now happily immersed in geometric group theory, a combination of the two.
Michael Pearson: What drew you to mathematics? Was it at an early age?
Ruth Charney: I certainly loved mathematics from a young age. I enjoyed it in school. But I would say I loved a lot of things, and I didn't know I was going to be a mathematician.
MP: You mentioned that your father worked at the National Institutes of Health. Was science already in your household?
RC: Absolutely, and I'm sure that was an influence on me. We were three girls in my family, and I don’t think my other two sisters had much of an interest in science. But I loved it, and my father loved talking to me about science.
MP: When you went to university, you had a lot of choices of what you could do. What happened there that got you into mathematics?
RC: Do you know Michael Spivak’s black calculus book? I was an undergraduate at Brandeis, and Michael Spivak was there at the time and was my freshman advisor. I remember, like a lot of freshmen, being a little nervous, not sure where I fit in, and not entirely confident, going in and saying, "I hear this freshman honors course is really hard; I'm not sure if I should take it," and he looks at my file and says, "You're taking it; get out of here!"
MP: You didn't end up continuing in analysis. What other courses as an undergraduate caught your interest?
RC: Over the years, I've realized that there are people who love mathematics because of the way it explains real phenomena and creates wonderful models one can use to explain the world. And then there are people, and I put myself in the second category, who like the weird parts of mathematics and like the fact that it enables you to think about things you never could have imagined without it.
MP: By the time you graduated from Brandeis, had you already decided to go to graduate school?
RC: Yes, but I took a year off anyway. I just felt like I had been in school for a long time. So I moved to New York where my sister was living at the time and studied modern dance for a year. And I must say I had to think twice, or 10, or 20 times before I decided to go back.
MP: Tell us a little bit about the progression of your research and your fields of interest over time.
RC: I've always liked algebra and topology, and I've always been interested in the interaction between the two. When I was in graduate school, there was a lot of excitement about k-theory. It was relatively new and just getting going in a big way.
MP: So you got in on the ground floor of geometric groups?
GJ: That really came into being as a field in the early 90s. In the late 80s, there was a long paper by Gromov, and we got a preprint copy of it. Mike Davis and I at Ohio State decided to start reading through this and have a little seminar to try and understand it. That paper really was the beginning of modern geometric group theory.
MP: Is geometric group theory a field that continues to grow and mature?
RC: It's just coming to maturity, so it's hard to say where it's going to go. There are some fields that are driven by a really big problem that has been around for a really long time, and while not everybody works specifically on that problem there's some big motivating force. . . . Geometric group theory came into being more as a new way of looking at things . . . as opposed to having a driving problem.
MP: Do you see any particular research directions that are likely to be central to your work?
RC: I'm sure I could come up with several, but it's not a single field driven in a single direction. One of the basic ideas in geometric group theory is looking at what's called the coarse geometry of a group.
MP: Tell us about your interests and experiences mentoring students.
RC: To some extent that happens naturally to us when we become more senior in our positions. I ended up being involved with women because I'm a senior woman in the field, and there aren't that many of them. I got asked to do this sort of thing, and I was happy to do so.