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Past MAA Distinguished Lectures

Cathy O'Neil
Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Abstract: What is the big data revolution all about? How have things really changed from old-fashioned statistics? How have people and their tracked activity become part of the product? Cathy will explain the culture, the mathematics, and the technology of modern large-scale recommendation engines.

Biography: Cathy O'Neil majored in math at UC Berkeley, earned a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, was a postdoc at the MIT math department, and was a professor at Barnard College where she published a number of research papers in arithmetic algebraic geometry. She then chucked it and switched over to the private sector. She worked as a quant for the hedge fund D.E. Shaw in the middle of the credit crisis, and then for RiskMetrics, a risk software company that assesses risk for the holdings of hedge funds and banks. More recently she’s been working as a Senior Data Scientist at Johnson Research Labs in New York. She writes a blog at and is involved with Occupy Wall Street.

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Robert Ghrist, University of Pennsylvania
Thursday, September 19, 2013

Abstract: Mathematics implicates motions and machines; computations and colorings; the strings and arrows of life. Perhaps the grandest expression of the beauty and power of mathematics is revealed in the quantification and qualification of that which is not there: holes. Topology—the mathematics of holes—will be surveyed with a fresh look at the many ways in which topology is used in data management, networks, and optimization.

Biography: After earning an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Toledo, Robert Ghrist went on to earn a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Cornell University, writing a thesis on knotted flowlines in 1995.

Robert Ghrist has held positions at the University of Texas, Austin; Georgia Institute of Technology; and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is currently the Andrea Mitchell University Professor of Mathematics and Electrical & Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ghrist's work focuses on topological methods in applied mathematics, with applications ranging from fluid dynamics to robotics to sensor networks and more. His work has been honored by an NSF PECASE award in 2004, a Scientific American "SciAm50 Top Research Innovation" award in 2007, and the Chauvenet Prize in 2013.

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Susan Murphy, University of Michigan
Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Abstract: Imagine you are a child with ADHD. Wouldn't you like your doctors to periodically adapt your treatment to your unique—and ever-changing—condition? And wouldn't you be excited to learn that an algorithm used to analyze your medical data was originally developed for applications in robotics and artificial intelligence? This lecture will explain how a randomized clinical trial design (Sequential Multiple Assignment Randomized Trial or SMART) is being used to develop adaptive interventions—protocols that systematize sequential decision-making that is key to effective treatment of health problems. Examples include a study of children with ADHD.

Biography: Susan A. Murphy fills many roles at the University of Michigan. She is the H.E. Robbins Professor of Statistics, a professor of psychiatry, and research professor at the university's Institute for Social Research. Murphy is a Fellow of the of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, the American Statistical Association, and was elected a member of the International Statistical Institute. She is a former editor of the Annals of Statistics. Her primary research interest concerns how best to collect and employ data to inform the development of personalized and individualized sequences of treatments to help people treat and manage chronic health problems.

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Charles Hadlock, Bentley University
Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Abstract: How stable is our planet's biosphere? How robust is our civilization to change? And how much power do we have to control our own future? The first step in answering these questions is to understand the processes at work. Lessons come from many disciplines: history, science, economics, engineering, and many others, with a special place for the speaker's own specialty—mathematics—which can help to tie the insights together.

Biography: Charles Hadlock is a professor of mathematical sciences at Bentley University in Massachusetts, where he previously served as the dean of the college. He has also taught mathematics at Amherst and Bowdoin Colleges and has held a visiting professorship in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In an earlier career as an international environment consultant with Arthur D. Little, Inc., he focused on analyzing risks on behalf of governments and multinational corporations. His books include Mathematical Modeling in the Environment, Field Theory and Its Classical Problems, and the recently published Six Sources of Collapse: A Mathematician’s Perspective on How Things Can Fall Apart in the Blink of an Eye, all published by the MAA.

Read more about Charlie Hadlock's talk.

Mary Lou Zeeman, Bowdoin College
Thursday, March 28, 2013

Abstract: The term “tipping point” describes the moment when a system suddenly changes state, with no obvious trigger other than a slowly changing environment. Tipping points are difficult to predict and difficult to reverse. Examples range from capsizing boats to fishery collapse; they include financial market crashes, the poverty trap, melting polar ice caps, shifts in ecosystems, and mood changes. A mathematical framework for understanding how tipping points can arise as bifurcations has long been in place. Pressing sustainability questions are now placing the study of tipping points in the context of policy decision support. These are driving efforts to explore the interaction between tipping and stochasticity in noisy systems. Can we extract, from measurements, indicators of resilience to tipping and early warning signs for proximity to a tipping point? We will introduce the bifurcation framework and discuss these questions in the context of applications to climate and biology.

MAA Distinguished Lecture: Mary Lou Zeeman

Biography: Mary Lou Zeeman is the Wells Johnson Professor of Mathematics at Bowdoin College. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley under the supervision of Moe Hirsch; worked at the University of Texas at San Antonio for 15 years; and has held visiting positions at the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, and Cornell. Her research interests range from dynamical systems to population dynamics and fisheries, neuroscience, endocrinology, and climate science.

Zeeman is also involved in several interdisciplinary initiatives focused on the health of the planet. She co-directs the Mathematics and Climate Research Network that links researchers across the U.S. and beyond to develop the mathematics needed to better understand the earth's climate ( She helped found the Institute for Computational Sustainability based at Cornell University, and she is on the organizational teams of the worldwide Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013 initiative and Mathematics Awareness Month on Mathematics and Sustainability, April 2013.

Read more about Mary Lou Zeeman's talk