Get to Know the Math Prof: Michael Damron
What is your research about?
I work in probability theory as it applies to physics. Here's an example: Imagine taking a city map, say the street grid of Atlanta, and placing random speed limits on the streets. Some streets may be set at 10 MPH, and others at, say, 20 MPH. Given these random assignments, what is the fastest route from one point in the city to another? How can we determine the fastest route? How different is this fastest route from the one obtained if all streets had the same speed limit?
Problems like travel times on street grids are related to social network connectivity, computer science problems, and even the behavior of magnets. Developing tools to attack theoretical problems often leads to advances in such applications. This ability is particularly relevant in the age of big data sets and the Internet.
What has been the most exciting time so far in your research life?
During my postdoc at Princeton University, a grad student and I developed a way to apply tools called Busemann functions to a different field. These functions have been used traditionally in a field called metric geometry, and our work, along with some from a professor at Washington, made them work in probability theory, which is very different. Our success led to several new results that unified many past works by others. Much of my current work focuses on exploring these functions and their applications.
How did you find your way to mathematics research?
As a child, I was encouraged to study and learn as much as possible. Even in preschool, I was working through second- and third-grade math workbooks. I learned very early that I enjoyed doing math problems.
When I started college at the University of Florida, I chose computer engineering because I heard it was a difficult major. It was indeed challenging, but also very interesting. During my second semester, I had a choice between theoretical or computational linear algebra. I heard that the theoretical course was harder, so I took it, hoping to learn more. Because I really enjoyed abstract reasoning, I decided to double major in computer engineering and math. But when the time came to choose what to study in grad school, it was clear to me that I liked math more.
In grad school, I was hugely influenced by my advisor. He taught me all about research, going to conferences, networking with people, and what problems are interesting. He also taught me research skills, such as how to reduce complex problems to simpler ones.
What advice would you give to a college freshman who wants to be a mathematician?
As early as possible, take a few pure math courses and a few applied math courses. It is good to know early whether you prefer applications and real computations over proofs and abstract reasoning. Take as many math courses as possible, and try to do some summer reading one-on-one with professors. Having a broad background will help you choose the right graduate school for your specific interests.
If you could not be a mathematician, in what line of work would you be now?
As I get older, I have become more motivated by the feeling I get when I appreciate the beauty of a mathematical argument or structure. I get this same feeling when listening to classical composers or reading profound books. In fact, nearly anything could bring me this feeling, as long as I take it seriously and pursue it with curiosity. Likely it is easiest to do this in an academic atmosphere, so I would try to be a professor of some other subject, maybe piano performance or literature.
What is the most exciting thing about being at Georgia Tech?
When I was in high school in Florida, many students who were interested in math or science tried to go to Georgia Tech, because it was the best school nearby. I was accepted, but ended up going to the University of Florida for financial reasons. So it is very exciting to be at Georgia Tech not as a student, but as a professor! The faculty are great researchers, often coming up with ground-breaking results. It is a great environment for my work.
What are you most surprised about in your encounters with Georgia Tech students?
I have been surprised by the diversity of student backgrounds and the variety of scientific perspectives here at Georgia Tech. I have not been at a technological institute before, and it is great to see so many people who are like me -- interested in engineering, math, and the sciences. Furthermore, students come from all possible backgrounds and ethnic groups. It is great that the student body seems to be less homogeneous than I expected.
What unusual skill, talent, or quality do you have that may not be obvious to your colleagues?
I have played classical piano since I was 9 years old. I'm out of practice now, but I was pretty serious in college. Most of the music I listen to now is classical, and lately I have been listening nonstop to the Mahler symphonies, which may be obvious to my colleagues, as they can hear it coming through my office door.
What is your ideal way of relaxing?
I love spending time with my wife and daughter, and I get to do this nearly every night. I used to come home and work all night, every night. But since having a child, I do not do that anymore. I am forced to slow down and play with my daughter and her toys. I also go to the gym every day and make sure I read a novel while doing cardio. This is not so much relaxing, but is it is not work related.
What three destinations are still in your travel to-do list?
I would like to go to Japan, Australia, and somewhere in Africa. I have heard many good things about Japan from a good friend who lives there. Australia is just so far away that I would like to be able to claim to have gone there. And Africa offers so few opportunities for conference-related travel, so this makes me even more interested.
If you won $10 million in a lottery, what would you do with it?
It is unlikely that I would ever play the lottery, as the expected gain is very low. It is a waste of money. However, if I were forced to play and I won, I would pay off my student debts. After that, I would buy a house, and then give a lot of money to my family. The rest I would save. There aren't too many items I really want to buy.