For some, the subject of math is a dreaded topic and the square route of pi seems like a useless fact to memorize for the future. But for John Ringland, an associate professor of mathematics at UB, numbers are his life.
For undergraduate students who share the love of math, it is important to Ringland that he does his best to see those students succeed. Ringland's enthusiasm for teaching is just one reason why he was one of five UB professors granted the new UB Faculty Award for Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity.
Ringland, along with other mathematic faculty members, saw an opportunity to further assist undergraduate students. The department applied for a grant through the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The grant funded the Undergraduate Research Group Experiences (URGE) to Compute program. URGE is a national apprenticeship program in computational mathematics research for undergraduate mathematics majors.
"Professor Ringland has a gift for helping young people find that courage and develop that intuition," said Anthony Grisafi, a graduate student in the department of physics and a cohort member of the URGE program. "He's an earnest and thoughtful adviser."
Ringland has been working to increase undergraduate research activity. The grant came at the right time to act as a catalyst to springboard new opportunities in the mathematics department. It was only natural that Ringland took on the role of leader. Though, according to Ringland, it was an overall team effort.
Sixty students over a five-year span will receive tremendous support both from faculty mentors and peers, as well as financially through student stipends from the grant. They will also be immersed in programs that will further their studies and allow them to present their findings around the world in professional journals.
"During his six years as director of undergraduate studies, and in the three years since, Dr. Ringland has completely transformed the undergraduate mathematics program," said David Hemmer, director of undergraduate studies in mathematics. "He spearheaded the creation of our new actuarial concentration…Since URGE started we've gone from zero or one student writing a senior honors thesis every year to six or seven."
Ringland strongly feels that students, no matter what they're studying, should be supported in their research and pursue what interests them most.
Though Ringland has been interested in math since early childhood, he wasn't always set on teaching it as a profession. It was while working on his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Texas in Austin that Ringland experienced two very life-changing discoveries.
One was meeting his wife, whom he met while playing tennis.
The second was finding that math was most interesting to him, which upon graduation led him to what he wanted to do.
"I was always looking for a career in which I could follow my curiosity," Ringland said. "I like abstraction, and that's what math is about. Abstraction allows you to understand several things by understanding one thing. It's powerful in that way. My brain happens to be wired in such a way that thinking mathematically is comfortable."
Since becoming a professor, he has found that one of its perks is helping his students thrive during their college years. The URGE to Compute program is one thing that has allowed Ringland the opportunity to see this.
The effect he has on his students is obvious not only while they attend UB, but also long after they graduate.
"He challenges and enables students to do their best," Grisafi said. "And, as important as all the rest, he has a great sense of humor – working on a project with Professor Ringland is a lot of fun."
Some of that fun Ringland brings to his students is his interest in music. In fact, if he weren't a professor, he'd be a music producer or a starving musician, he said. However, he feels that not all kinds of music can be deemed mathematical.
Either way, he plays his guitar and his recently picked up hobby, the drums any spare time he gets, overseeing the program, or spending time with his family.
It is safe to say Ringland has helped many of the students he's mentored.
"His commitment to the development of our research project, as well as our minds, made us hold our work to a higher standard," said UB alumnus Ryan Klafehn, who now attends Duke Law School. "As I learned from my time with him, a person should always strive to better himself each day, pushing their intellectual boundaries to a point of discomfort. I can confidently say his mentoring and constant presence contributed substantially to the final product – a presentation at a national conference and a published paper – of our research project."