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Math professor Jessica Purcell wins prestigious science fellowship

For only the second time, a scientist at Brigham Young University has won the prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship — a secret she and her husband had to keep quiet for a few days last month.

Mathematics professor Jessica Purcell is one of 20 mathematicians this year to receive the fellowship, which is awarded to early-career scientists with the potential to make substantial contributions in their field. Only four of those 20 are women, and Purcell said she’d love to see more women pursue math.

“There have been some influential female mathematicians along my path, and I hope that I can provide inspiration to other women along their way,” Purcell said.

Purcell’s route to BYU included a Ph.D. at Stanford and a postdoc at Oxford. The job offer in Provo appealed to her for reasons that persuade some others to look elsewhere.

“One thing about BYU that I really liked is that BYU values both the teaching and research aspects of the career,” Purcell said. “I think that’s pretty unique. If anything, it makes BYU more of an intimidating place to work because you will be evaluated seriously on both, but it fits for people like me who enjoy doing both.”

Not only does she teach calculus to 200 undergrads this semester, she involves a handful of undergraduates in her research. Together they advance what we know about shapes called three-dimensional manifolds. Their work helps others answer tricky geometric questions such as, “What is the shape of the universe?”

Undergraduate students Clint Rollins and Jim Kaiser both recognized their good fortune before their mentor earned the Sloan Fellowship.

“I didn’t know much about hyperbolic geometry when we started,” Rollins said. “She could probably do some of the things we work on in a tenth of the time, but she instead walks us through the writing and gives us the learning experience.”

Rollins and Kaiser praised Purcell for her mentorship when they formulate their own research questions along the way. The pair of undergrads are now preparing a paper for publication in a mathematics journal.

“Clint and I had taken little more than calculus when we started working with Professor Purcell,” Kaiser said. “But our research topic requires familiarity with hyperbolic geometry, Möbius transformations, 3-manifolds and the complex plane. Thanks to Professor Purcell’s superb teaching ability, we were already making progress on the research after just a month.”

Past Sloan Fellows at BYU

According to the Sloan Foundation, former chemistry professor Howard Tracy Hall is the only other person to receive the honor while on the faculty at BYU. At least two other Sloan Fellows earned the award prior to joining the BYU faculty. One of those is math professor James W. Cannon, who nominated Purcell for the fellowship.

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