He Can Go the Distance, On and Off the Track
Issue   |   Fri, 05/24/2013 - 13:30

Despite running over 80 miles a week, Andrew Erskine always finds himself in bed before 11:00 p.m., leaving enough time to have memorized every Disney song, accurately sung upon request — perhaps not in tune, but at least in character. However, Erskine’s passion is not for theatre, but rather for math. Graduating with a double-major in Math and Computer Science, Erskine has mapped out his life — on and off the track — with precision and calculation.

I’ll Make a Man...
“In the Jewish religion, you name children after deceased family members,” Erskine said.

His parents wanted to name him in memory of his great-uncle Albert, but preferred the name Andrew, which started with the same initial sound.

Growing up in Stamford, Conn., Erskine attempted a variety of sports and clubs, and the ones that stuck were tennis and chess. But, as it happened, his passion for these activities slowly subsided.

“My brother could serve the tennis ball and I couldn’t, so I got discouraged and quit in fifth grade,” Erskine said.

Similarly, after competing in a chess tournament with a bad fever and losing all his matches, Erskine (for the time being) crossed chess off his list of hobbies. Currently, however, Erskine dominates a small three-person chess league on the cross-country team.

Erskine describes his middle-school self as “a bum,” and not exactly a nerd, for he sat playing video games after school and was not acquiring the near-perfect GPA that he has now. After all those hours of playing video games, his hard work seems to have paid off.

“I was ranked top thousand in the U.S. East [for Warcraft 3],” Erskine said.

And perhaps these countless hours indirectly cultivated Erskine’s skills in computer science or, at least, made him “unbeatable” at Super Smash Brothers among the men’s cross-country and track teams.

While he was in high school, Erskine’s parents became worried that his lack of extracurricular activities would be detrimental to his college career.

“My mom told me I had to participate in an activity — any sport, any club — during at least one part of the year, or else I wasn’t allowed home,” Erskine said.

Remembering his great-uncle Cliff’s suggestion that he might be a good runner, Erskine decided to pick up a pair of running sneakers and join the cross-country team.

On the first day of practice, Erskine started his running career with a 6:55 mile during a time trial for all first-years.

“I thought I was amazingly fast,” Erskine recounted.

However, he soon realized that his first mile was far from admirable. Throughout his first year, Erskine saw himself hitting personal records every race.

“My 5K times were very slow for most of the season, starting off with 23:30, but by the end of the season I was 20:30 which is not amazing, but it put me third on the team,” Erskine said.

Not only did Erskine make his parents proud by participating in an activity for one season, but he also decided to join the indoor and outdoor track teams, making him a three-season athlete. A major milestone in Erskine’s high school running career was the first time he broke 10 minutes in the two-mile. Despite beginning the race too slowly, the motivating words of the sprinting coach “not to waste the race” prompted Erskine to pick up the pace, finishing far ahead of the pack with a first-place victory.

A Whole New World
These days, Erskine, waking up between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. — running on a glorious nine to 10 hours of sleep — begins every morning with an egg sandwich and a pastry. Knowing the Valentine menu backwards and forwards, Erskine seems to have a mental tier that ranks each of the dishes. Although chicken enchiladas have a high standing (for the meal is accompanied by nachos and corn bread), vegetable lasagna comes in as a close second, which is notable since Erskine usually steers clear of vegetables.

“I know way too much about Val because of [Erskine],” remarked Dillon Buckley ’13, a friend and teammate.

Before meeting Erskine for the first time, Buckley remembers friending him on Facebook and recalling that “his photo made it seem like he was really tall and a big dude. And then when I met him, he was much shorter than I thought.” His personality, though, was far from miniscule.

“Andrew is someone who brings a totally crazy and different perspective to issues, because his mind is so logical at times.”

In fact, Erskine has started “Riddle Wednesday” at practice, whereby he gives the team a math problem to solve.

“It hasn’t really caught on…[but] a lot of people like them,” Buckley said.

Teammates and coaches admire Erskine for his dedication and consistency.

“I suppose it’s weird,” remarked Erik Nedeau, cross-country and track coach. “I could say it was winning New England’s in the 10K, qualifying for Nationals in cross-country, but I think the biggest success is that he is graduating with a 3.95 [GPA] and finding the time to accomplish the great things he has done with running.”

Although Erskine insists that he cannot run by himself because his pace ends up “insanely slow,” his teammates do poke fun at how “he is very good at zoning out and not paying attention,” often adding his two cents after the topic of discussion has shifted gears.

One may ask how Erskine is able to balance, all these activities at an extraordinary level. In combination with what Buckley describes as a “highly regimented schedule,” Erskine does all his work in his room. Sitting in silence, with the blinds closed so as to eliminate any distractions, is the key to his success.

“If you are trying to be efficient, don’t go somewhere to study where you are going to see other people,” Erskine said.

Looking through life in terms of numbers, the walk from Jenkins to Frost, and back, may just be too long to calculate into his systematic itinerary.

You Can Fly!
Fueled with an interest in math before entering Amherst College, Erskine’s first math course was Multivariable Calculus with Professor Benjamin Hutz. The professor’s dog, Kaz, would sleep on the front desk.

“Every time class would end,” Erskine said, “we would all pet him on the way out.”

With advanced calculus as a stepping-stone, Erskine was drawn more to theoretical math. His favorite classes at Amherst have been Groups, Rings and Fields, Analysis and Topology.

Erskine’s professors praise him for his efficiency as a grader and his relative ease in class. Professor Michael Ching first met Erskine as a grader for his Multivariable Calculus course.

“He made my life, as a new faculty member just getting used to things at Amherst, a lot easier,” Ching said.

In fact, Erskine’s grading received very few complaints from the students, as a result of his fairness.

However, his greatest academic achievement and largest contribution to the Math Department has been his thesis. According to Ching, his thesis “gave a completely new definition of a property of graphs. It really is a very impressive and beautiful result that greatly improves on other published papers in this area.”

His thesis stemmed from a 2010 paper his thesis advisor, Professor David Cox, proposed to him about the Binomial Edge Ideal. In an attempt to outline his thesis for me, Erskine pulled out a sheet of graph paper and pencil and began drawing and labeling various diagrams.

“Think of a map, and the cities are the vertices and the roads are the edges,” Erskine explained.

As he drew a diamond, he assigned a different number to each vertex, for the graph must be labeled in a particular fashion in order for it to be properly represented. Erskine’s thesis worked on defining what it means for a graph to be “closed.” His thesis outlines a third property—what he calls “narrow”—to the 2010 paper necessary for a graph to be “closed.”

In January of 2012, Cox remembers, “he began to get the glimmers of what was going on…he actually had the proof and could make this thing fly.”

However, this step was not reached without a brief moment of panic.

“While I’m trying to prove that if we have property A then property C holds,” Erskine recounted, “just when I think I almost have it—I come across an example of something that had property A but did not have property C, and even worse didn’t have property B.”

At this point, Erskine became concerned about the direction his thesis was heading.

“I had spent so long trying to prove this and was quite sure it would be the centerpiece of my thesis,” Erskine said.

What made Erskine’s work spectacular, as Cox described, is that “a lot of people would have stopped at the counter-example, but Erskine took it one step further and realized that if he turned things around, then everything would work.” This became the “centerpiece” of his thesis.

Erskine’s thesis was a fusion of both his computer science and math knowledge.

“His computer science background became critical to coming up with an algorithm that would produce the labeling that had the ‘closed’ property if it had the three properties,” acknowledged Cox.

Erskine’s thesis is clearly a culmination of what he has focused on at Amherst College.

The Circle of Life
Erskine will spend his summer in Amherst working on the publication of his senior thesis. Fortunately, this will allow him to dine at Val, having at least a handful more egg-sandwiches before he leaves the campus in the fall.

Next year, Erskine will be working as a software engineer for TripAdvisor.

Professor Cox acknowledges the amusing thing about his career choice.

“The job will involve a map, and with that we get back to the cities as vertices and the roads as edges,” Cox said.

It seems that Erskine will never be able to escape maps and graphs, for if it is not involved in his job, Erskine will still be hitting the roads and running in any city his future takes him.