“This is my mathematical home:” Martin Olsson on the start of his second tour as department chair

December 14, 2023

Martin Olsson is a professor at UC Berkeley who chairs the Department of Mathematics. Olsson studies algebraic geometry — the part of mathematics that concerns spaces defined by polynomial equations — with an eye toward arithmetic and number theory. He is currently juggling many projects: building culture across the department, evaluating evolving teaching needs, attracting talented faculty members, and preparing for a new building to replace Evans Hall, the center of the mathematical universe at Berkeley for decades.

With the fall semester underway, Olsson sat down to discuss his department’s priorities.

This is your second time as chair, so you obviously found something valuable during your first appointment. What has been the most rewarding part of being chair?

First of all, it’s a great honor to represent the math department and UC Berkeley. I feel that this is my mathematical home, and if this is a way to contribute to its success, I’m very happy to do that. And it’s wonderful to see the success of my colleagues and students. In some sense, that is a shared success, so I greatly enjoy that part.

Martin Olsson poses for a photo outdoors with trees and hills in the background

Professor Martin Olsson

What makes the department stellar?

It’s a wonderful place to be. We have great students, great colleagues. It’s a place with a long history of faculty doing some of their best work, and there’s a reason for that. It’s because of our environment: I think that the research environment is second to none, and the student population is really fantastic at Berkeley.

We’re a very large department with research covering a huge amount of pure and applied mathematics. The significant majority of Berkeley students go through our classes. The number of math majors fluctuates between 500 to over 1,000, depending on when you do the snapshot. So, it’s a very lively place.

We have faculty working in geometry, topology, logic, number theory — pretty much every field of mathematics is represented here. One of our faculty, Hannah Larson, just won the Maryam Mirzakhani Prize, the big award from the Breakthrough Foundation. When your home is that kind of exceptional place and you meet colleagues in your day-to-day that are all doing amazing things, it energizes you and brings you to a different level.

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VIDEO: Martin Olsson shares where the Department of Mathematics is heading

What areas are priorities to the department and you, as chair, over the next year?

We’re a big department, so that means we have a lot of areas that require attention. Certainly, we’re going to need a new building in the near future.

We have new faculty who are getting settled in and new graduate students who are just beginning their paths as research mathematicians, and at this time of year, there’s a lot of work getting the community up and running after the quiet summer. In the graduate student sphere, we’re very focused on building community. COVID seems like a long time ago, but the effects are still very much felt, especially for the students who came in during that time.

There’s a lot going on in the curriculum front. Higher-level math is becoming increasingly crucial for many careers. Students have changing interests: there’s more focus on areas like data science and applied mathematics, so we’ve developed new courses. In addition, there’s huge demand at the lower-division level, so getting all the first-year students into classes is a very large endeavor.

We also have a big push in meeting students where they’re at, which means creating courses for students who may need additional background to bring them up to the level of our traditional math courses. Over several years, one of our professors, Alexander Paulin, has developed a half-semester course through our Solid Foundations program that students can take to supplement their other courses and fill in what would traditionally be a pre-calculus background.

The bottom line is that students are getting an education in math that they can take and put to use in many directions.
Martin Olsson

Does your department have any needs that alums and friends can support?

We have opportunities to have a big impact on several different spheres, depending on what people are interested in. Research experiences for undergraduates are highly sought after, which requires support for students to meet their basic needs while engaging in research with faculty over the summer.

Grad student support is always one of our priorities. Funding in the math department typically comes through teaching, so it’s really important to give grad students some semesters without having to teach. It makes a huge impact on graduate students when they can devote their entire time to research. When they need that time to focus, they’re either supported by faculty grants or fellowships supported by donors.

Competing with other top universities, especially top private ones, is a big challenge, so we’re always trying to recruit new faculty. It takes a lot to bring a faculty member to Berkeley. People like living in the Bay Area, but it’s also very expensive, so that’s both a draw and a challenge. Beyond the basics of their hire, they need research funding to get themselves set up here. That is an area where donor funding can make a huge impact. Bringing the best faculty to Berkeley is a very high priority and is something that we can’t maintain a top department without.

Have any experiences as a professor stood out to you? Something that made you think, “All that work was worth it.”

Evans Hall rises above the trees on Berkeley's campus

Evans Hall, the longtime home of math instruction at UC Berkeley, is set to be replaced.

One of my favorite parts of the year is our commencement ceremony because we have a tradition where the graduating students come up, and we announce their future plans. People go into public health, K-12 education, technology, finance, and graduate school in all kinds of fields. The bottom line is that students are getting an education in math that they can take and put to use in many directions.

I really value when students tell me later about some particular interaction that was really impactful. I’ve been fortunate to have that happen on various occasions in my career. I always appreciate when students come up to me and say, “I went to graduate school” or “I continued in math because I had a good experience.”