Fresh Faculty: Harris Daniels
Issue   |   Wed, 12/07/2016 - 00:25

Professor Harris Daniels is a Professor of Mathematics on the tenure track after several years as a visiting professor. He holds a B.S. in mathematics and philosophy from Trinity and a M.S. and Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Connecticut.

Q: How did you become interested in the field of mathematics?
A: I was very lucky; I grew up in Pittsburgh and I went to a very small private school that was filled with great teachers. In particular, my math teachers were really fantastic and good at sparking interest in students. And I think that’s been a trend in my education … to be lucky to be around people who are excited about things, in particular mathematics. So I would say it started in elementary school, maybe middle school ... and sort of continued all the way through my academic career.

Q: What did you do before teaching at Amherst?
A: I was at Amherst. I am in my first year of a tenure track position, but my last job was actually a visiting position at Amherst. So this is actually my fourth year here, so I’m sort of fresh, but not as fresh as some of the other people you may be interviewing. But before that, I was at the University of Connecticut finishing up my Ph.D. as a graduate student. So usually, people say that your first job isn’t a career, or isn’t your last job, but I’m hoping that that won’t be the case for me, that this really is my forever job.

Q: What brought you to Amherst?
A: I’m actually a Trinity alum, so I’m very aware of the NESCAC world, and was very excited to have the opportunity to come to a school like Amherst. My dad’s a Tufts alum, so we have a lot of NESCAC in the family. So when I had the opportunity to come and teach at Amherst, I knew it would be a good fit, and I knew it would be an excellent place, and was very excited to get back into the NESCAC world after being at the University of Connecticut for five or six years.

Q: Can you tell me about the classes you’re teaching this semester?
A: This semester I’m actually only teaching one class — I had my first baby over the summer, so I got a teaching reduction, so I’m teaching only linear algebra this semester, which is a 200-level math class. [It] is really a math major’s, or anyone who is in the class, first introduction to a proof-based math class — calculus, for the most part, is more computational based and in linear algebra we start proving everything that we assert as true. It’s an interesting, difficult class that sort of functions as our transition to higher level mathematics within the department.

Q: Are you teaching the same class next semester, or something new?
A: Next semester I’m teaching Math 355, which is Introduction to Analysis, and … this will be my third time teaching that here. But then I’m also starting a course on the p-adic numbers, so it will be like a p-adic analysis course. The p-adic numbers are sort of like the real numbers in a sense, but very different, in that they contain the rational numbers but they act differently from the real numbers, hence why we study them, because they are the same but different in fun ways. So I’ll teach that next semester, and that’s the first time, I think, the p-adic number course has been offered in like 20 years, so I’m pretty excited about it.

Q: Are you currently involved in any research, or have you been in the past?
A: I had a research student last semester, who we just actually got a paper accepted for publication in the International Journal of Number Theory, which is very exciting. It’s about elliptic curves and ranks of elliptic curves. And I have my own research projects, which generally focus around elliptic curves, which are very popular objects these days, and it’s sort of hard to describe exactly why they’re interesting. They tend to show up in lots of strange places — when studying cryptography, when studying physics, they pop up and so they’ve found themselves an object of interest for the past 30 or 45 years.

Q: What do you like about Amherst so far?
A: I think the thing that I like the most about Amherst are the students. They’re really a pleasure to teach — they take their academics seriously, they show up prepared, ready to go and very few are asleep in class, despite 9 a.m. classes. And having the opportunity to really get to know students outside the classroom is really a nice thing. The college does a great job with the Take Your Professor Out program, and programs like that, encouraging students to get to know their professors outside the classroom. And so having those personal connections with students is something you don’t have at a lot of large research institutions. But I would definitely say the students are my favorite part of teaching at Amherst — besides my gigantic office.

Q: When you’re not researching or teaching classes, what do you do in your free time?
A: I’ve been trying to catch up on sleep recently. With this new baby, it’s been more and more difficult. But I love watching sports, as you can tell from my sports memorabilia throughout the office. I’m a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan — I grew up in Pittsburgh, so if you aren’t a Steelers fan in Pittsburgh, they kick you out eventually. And the Penguins, of course, are another big one for me. But my wife and I love to eat — we’re foodies, and we like to cook and eat. And that’s, I’d say, the majority of my free time, besides research, which I consider free time.