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Building a math community for all

Author: Lona

Michael Young, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics, is building a community around mathematics that is open and welcoming to all.

“I view mathematics as a social activity,” Young said. “Mathematics is a language, something that has been introduced so we can communicate.”

Young is an expert at speaking that language with all students, from undergraduates to Ph.D. students. He even founded the Mathematicians of Color Alliance (MOCA), a student organization to recruit and retain students of color in the mathematics graduate program at Iowa State, to increase connection in the department.

“I wanted to provide something that I think would have been beneficial to me when I was a student,” he said. “There were no other students with a similar background to me in terms of type of undergraduate institution I attended, race, region of the country, or mathematical experience.”

#Zero-forcing at Iowa State

Young joined Iowa State in 2010 as a postdoctorate, staying on in 2011 through the National Science Foundation’s National Alliance for Building Diversity among Research Faculty, which aims to increase access of underrepresented U.S. groups to tenure-track positions.

Young’s thesis work was in Ramsey theory, an area of graph theory in which objects in a group are colored and then unique subsets with all colors alike are found.

At Iowa State, he was also introduced to another area of graph theory: zero-forcing methods, which involve propagating colors to vertices on a graph based on the properties of the vertices.

This mathematical idea is related to solving equations, such as when unknown variables become known variables based on other information. It has applications to matrix theory, electrical engineering and quantum physics.

“I find zero-forcing makes it easy to work with people at different levels,” Young said. “I’ve worked with undergrads all the way up to senior faculty on zero-forcing problems.”

Through zero-forcing, he has helped undergraduate students win awards for
best presentation, research, or poster at national and international math conferences in front of senior level mathematicians.

#Humanizing mathematics

Zero-forcing allows Young to do one of his favorite things in mathematics: make connections with students, which he says is one of the most important aspects in teaching.

“There are students who say they hate math, but what I hear them saying is they’ve had bad mathematical experiences in the past,” he said. “I try to give them good math experiences, no matter what level we’re doing math at and a part of that is making connection with them.”

For example, Young works to improve the experience of all those who struggle with math for any reason, including how race and culture affect classroom experiences. Each summer he travels to Pittsburgh through the Designing for Equity by Thinking in and about Mathematics (DEBT-M) program, an NSF funded initiative to close the opportunity gap for marginalized secondary mathematics students. There, Young helps teachers strengthen their math identity and address race and culture in their school system.

Young also works to address racial disparity in mathematics at Iowa State through the MOCA program.

Julia Anderson-Lee (Ph.D. ’17 mathematics) was recruited to Iowa State from the east coast. Getting to know Young and joining MOCA helped her feel at home.

“I’m truly grateful for Michael being such a great mentor and for him thinking outside himself to help others along this Ph.D. journey,” Anderson-Lee said.

Young helped Anderson-Lee connect with other math students and professors of color at Iowa State and in the larger mathematics community through conferences. MOCA also helped her to share her own experiences with others and offer advice to incoming students. Anderson-Lee was one of the first students to join MOCA and will be among the first to graduate. Three more MOCA members are expected to graduate next year.

“Since I came to the program, the number of students of color has grown significantly and I know a large part of that is MOCA and Michael,” Anderson-Lee said. “It’s important to have representation in spaces that have previously not been very open to students of color or women.”

Young’s work shows his dedication to establishing student teacher connections to create an environment for success here at Iowa State and beyond.

By Elizabeth Peterson
Photo by Blake Lanser