Precup wins NSF CAREER award

Martha Precup has won a prestigious National Science Foundation award for a project uncovering patterns in complex data.

Martha Precup, assistant professor of mathematics and statistics, has won a Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation for her project Hessenberg varieties, symmetric functions, and combinatorial representation theory.” The highly prized NSF award recognizes junior faculty who excel at mentoring while successfully integrating research and education. 

Martha Precup

“This grant really gives me a chance to think carefully about how I want my research and teaching to move forward over the next five years,” Precup said. “I feel very honored to be selected.”

Precup will use the grant to search for patterns within geometric data. Her research focuses on solutions to polynomial equations, which explain the relationships between numbers and variables. Middle school students are likely familiar with the simple polynomial equations that define lines and curves. Precup, however, works with many equations and hundreds of variables at once, a challenge that requires innovative thinking and new mathematical approaches.

Specifically, Precup is looking at equations that define a particular type of geometric object called a Hessenberg variety. Such equations are often used in numerical linear algebra to streamline calculations, but Precup is most interested in the theoretical challenge. “I work in the field of pure math,” she said. “I’m not necessarily looking for applications but, of course, applications do sometimes arise. Since the system of equations defining each Hessenberg variety is so large, we look for patterns to recover relevant information instead of computing directly.”

The CAREER award will also help Precup expand her outreach as a teacher and a mentor. “The math department already has some great programs, and I’m thinking about ways to strengthen them to serve more students,” she said.

For example, the department gives upper-level undergraduate students a chance to conduct math research alongside faculty members through the Friewald Scholars Program. She plans to expand the program to include more first- and second-year students who have yet to explore the research side of math. “They’ll have a chance to learn a lot to fun mathematics that they’re not going to see in their classes,” she said.

Precup would also like to expand her work with Washington University’s Association for Women in Mathematics, a local chapter of a national organization that promotes gender equity in math and STEM fields. One idea she’s considering: A one-day math event that brings local middle-schoolers to WashU’s campus.

“This grant will help me reach more students who might not otherwise be exposed to mathematics as a research topic,” Precup said.