Nancy Ann Neudauer races sail boats across oceans, snorkels in tropical climates, skis in the Alps and loves traveling — which is probably far from the antiquated stereotype of a mathematician.
Yet mathematics is also passion of Neudauer’s, and one that has enabled her to travel to faraway places. She is an associate professor of mathematics at Pacific University, who traveled to South Africa to teach high-level mathematics in December and January.
For three weeks, Neudauer worked with some 55 graduate students from throughout Africa in a program sponsored by the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). Part of her work was also sponsored by a Fulbright grant.
Her specialty is matroids, graph theory and discrete mathematics. Matroids are abstract notions of algebraic dependence, linear independence and geometric dependence. They are useful in optimization problems, particularly on networks, like those that arise in high-tech fields, she said.
Neudauer grew up in Milwaukee, Wisc., and, as an undergraduate, majored not in math, but in insurance, actuarial science and risk management at the University of Wisconsin. Mathematics was somewhat an afterthought, she said. She applied to law school and had visited several schools before being drawn to mathematics.
“I don’t think mathematics is something we choose,” she said. “I think it chooses us.”
Neudauer went on to earn a master’s degree in mathematics, then a doctorate in math with minors in business and law, all at the University of Wisconsin.
At Pacific, she teaches a variety of courses to undergraduates and is also involved in many different workshops, conferences, seminars and other events. She has been a visiting scholar, both locally and internationally.
Her three weeks in Cape Town, South Africa, were part of the AIMS program that offers master’s degrees for African students from across the continent to enable them to continue training in math and the sciences at universities around the world. “The students are just phenomenal, just so inspirational,” said Neudauer, noting that students came from a variety locations, big cities as well as small villages.
“All have a four-year degree in mathematics or physics or computer science,” she said.
“I thought I could bring something to them,” she said, “but instead they brought something to me in some sense – a cross- cultural experience. They were grateful to be there.
“It was so refreshing to see they were so eager to learn; they never complained of having too much work or not understanding something.”
She also said students were very motivated. “They were very respectful. They came to class dressed well … their attitude was they were there to learn. They were focused and attentive in class, respectful of me and my time.”
The African experience, she said, was also intense, partly because students and faculty all lived in the same building as the classrooms and dining area. The faculty ate meals with the students and often, she said, she worked in the computer lab late at night with the students.
“The hope for this is that it prepares them for PhD programs … preparing them with the mathematical reasoning and computer skills to really be competitive in Europe, Canada, the U.S., even African graduate schools,” she said.
The week before she started teaching, Neudauer took time driving to take in the sights around South Africa, one of the many countries she has visited. She has also journeyed to Europe, New Zealand, Australia and the South Seas.
In addition to mathematics, Neudauer’s hobbies include racing sailboats. As a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which sits on four lakes, she learned how to sail, then became an instructor for both sailing and windsurfing for six years. Among her achievements is a 21-day trip from Tahiti to Hawai’i on a sailboat.
Neudauer will take a year-long sabbatical next year and, for part of that time, she(will be the visiting mathematician at the Mathematical Association of America’s office in Washington, D.C. In that role, she will contribute to the advancement of K-16 mathematics education and hopes to establish programs to get high school teachers more involved in research.
She also plans to go to several conferences and hopes to visit two AIMS centers on the African continent.