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Scholars of Note: Mathematics

by Black Issues

MathematicsTaking the Tough RoadEdray Herber GoinsTitle: Taussky-Todd Instructor of Mathematics, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif.
Education: Ph.D., Mathematics, Stanford
University; B.S., Mathematics and Physics, California Institute of Technology
Age: 31No one can accuse Dr. Edray H. Goins of taking the easy road in his academic life. As a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the pre-eminent California Institute of Technology, or more commonly known as Caltech, Goins occupies a premier spot from which to chart a pathbreaking career as a mathematics scholar.
The postdoctoral position, known as a Taussky-Todd instructor of mathematics at Caltech, is designed so that Goins can pursue mathematics research, as well as sharpen teaching skills. In contrast, the science postdoctoral experience, marked by collaboration among scientists, typically assigns a young researcher to the laboratory of a senior professor.
“Typically in mathematics you do research alone. (It’s) really a solitary science,” Goins says.
Though the postdoctoral fellowship is commonly thought to shield young scholars from teaching duties while they pursue research, math postdocs at colleges and universities are expected to teach classes just as their full-time faculty colleagues do. Yet, it’s understood that their postdoctoral status puts them on track for appointments at top-tier research universities rather than at schools where the faculty focus exclusively on mathematics instruction, according to Goins. 
For his part, Goins wants to advance a branch of number theory that’s been conceptualized and drawn from the geometrical properties of elliptical curves. While the research work is highly abstract and theoretical, it has practical applications in computer science, Goins notes. Nonetheless, he believes the number theory research he pursues will prove accessible and motivational to the undergraduate and graduate students he will teach in the coming years.
“I want to keep the research close to the students,” he says.
As one of the few Blacks to study, as well as to teach at Caltech, Goins places a high priority on shaping himself as a scholar who can motivate and inspire excellence in students. In his previous days as a student, Goins demonstrated intellectual ambition of a high order and actively sought mentorship from faculty members. Double majoring in both physics and mathematics during his undergraduate years at Caltech, Goins undertook this difficult challenge partly to figure out where his talents truly lay, as well as to master physics at the school said to have the most rigorous undergraduate physics major in the nation.
“It’s an awfully difficult thing to do majoring in both physics and math at Caltech. Only the most ambitious students attempt to double major,” says Dr. Steven Frautschi, a professor of physics at Caltech and Goins’ adviser when he was a Caltech undergraduate. 
One crucial turning point for Goins during college came while attending a national convention of Black physicists and students at Stanford University. There, he met two prominent Black mathematicians who convinced him to study math in graduate school and become a mathematician. Goins earned his Ph.D. in math at Stanford University in 1999.
After leaving Stanford, he has held postdoctoral appointments at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute and the Institute for Advanced Study before taking successive postdoctoral jobs at Caltech. He also has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University. Currently, he is in his third year at Caltech and is seeking a full-time faculty position at a research university.
Hailing from the gritty streets of South Central Los Angeles, Goins credits his mother, a schoolteacher, and other teachers in the public schools he attended with encouraging and motivating him to study hard and to take on additional learning challenges. In his spare time, he has played piano and has learned to play the harpsichord. Raised by his mother along with his brother, Goins recalls that he experienced a thirst for learning at an early age.
“I remember bugging my teachers to let me study ahead and take on topics not part of the regular curriculum,” he says.
During graduate school and the postdoctoral positions he’s held, Goins has made a consistent effort to reach out to Black and other minority students to counsel them on considering and getting through difficult math and science majors. “Mentoring students is very important,” he adds. — By Ronald Roach



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