UC Davis Mathematics

A Brief History of the Department

Instruction in mathematics at Davis dates from the early days of the University Farm School. The first courses were of a service nature and directed toward practical application in agriculture. In addition, the staff gave instruction in surveying through the Division of Irrigation Investigations and Practice. Instruction in physics, first offered in 1927, was also assigned to the mathematics staff. In 1933 Edward B. Roessler was sent to Davis from Berkeley to develop the Division of Mathematics and Physics and to create statistical services for agriculture. This combined division grew until 1953, when two separate departments were created.

During the 1960s the Department of Mathematics dramatically increased in size, from 12 faculty members (with only two full professors) in 1958 to 33 by 1970. At the end of the 1960s, Robert W. Stringall, with some input from Sherman K. Stein, started the federally funded SEED program, which involved the innovative teaching of advanced mathematics (e.g., calculus) to elementary school students, especially minorities. The Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) program was launched in the early 1970s to produce mathematics teachers with strong pedagogical backgrounds.

By 1978 there were 41 faculty members whose expertise, activities, and interests were no longer bound by the single word "mathematics." The department split into those who remained in the Department of Mathematics and those who went into other units, including the Division of Statistics (formed in 1979), the Division of Engineering Computer Science (formed in 1983), Zoology, Environmental Sciences, and Agronomy and Range Science. Although the separation of the mathematical biologists was a setback from which the department is still recovering, momentum grew in different fields such as mathematical physics and topology. In the 1980s the department formed a strong research group in applied mathematics. At the same time, several campus research scientists joined applied mathematicians to initiate a graduate group and an organized research unit. The Graduate Group in Applied Mathematics (GGAM), formed in 1984, offers an interdisciplinary master's and doctoral degree program.

Economic woes in the 1990s brought strict budget controls, a hiring freeze, and academic salary reductions, which hit the mathematics department hard. The department lost a large number of faculty. As it struggled for survival, the department set higher standards for promotion, tenure, and recruitment. As a consequence, it evolved into a respected research center in many modern areas of mathematics by the end of the 1990s. Several faculty from prestigious national and international universities joined the department and contributed to the spread of its international reputation, including William P. Thurston, winner of the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics. Research grants and contracts continue to increase.

During the 1990s department faculty received several prestigious awards. Joel Hass, Abigail Thompson, Jeremy Quastel, and Greg Kuperberg received Sloan Foundation fellowships. J. Blake Temple was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, and Roger J. B. Wets won the George B. Dantzig Prize of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. Angela Cheer and Abigail Thompson also earned NSF Career Advancement Awards.

by Motohico Mulase and Henry Alder