Vincent Thompson, a December 2020 Indiana University of Pennsylvania mathematics and physics graduate and current master’s in applied mathematics program student at IUP, has been selected for a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship program.
Less than 15 percent of applicants nationwide are selected for this funding, which supports students working to earn a PhD in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) field.
The award is for three years of support and includes financial support for tuition as well as a stipend for living expenses. Thompson is one of only 28 students in the nation in pursuit of a PhD in the category of algebra, number theory, and combinatorics selected for the funding.
Thompson, of Indiana, who was selected for a Goldwater Scholarship during his junior year at IUP, will begin study at Rice University in Houston in fall 2021 in its mathematics program (abstract algebra).
“Rice is a small university but is one of the best research universities in the world,” Thompson said. “It has a very collaborative culture, very open and inclusive, with a commitment to diversity. Also, my research interests match well with some of the faculty there, so I feel like it’s the right place for me,” he said.
“I definitely would not have won this fellowship if not for the faculty in the department over the years,” Thompson said. “They have always been so supportive. Particularly, I want to thank Dr. (Frederick) Adkins, Dr. (Timothy) Flowers, and Dr. (Charles) Lamb who played a pivotal role in guiding me through the applications for the NSF-GRFP and graduate schools. I also want to thank my friend Micayla Schambura, who took time to help me organize my thoughts and work out the first drafts,” he said.
While at IUP, Thompson has worked with Francisco Alarcón, chair of the Department of Mathematical and Computer Sciences, continuing work in an area that Alarcón did for his PhD, namely semiring theory.
“Dr. Alarcón has always been so open with me, caring, and willing to help. When I mentioned that I had an interest in algebra, he gently guided me into research. Eventually, I felt more comfortable and we were able to pursue the topics that we have been working on over this past year. He has been one of the greatest teachers of my life, and IUP is lucky to have him,” Thompson said.
“Finally, I have to thank my mother, Lisa, who was such a radiant light in my life. She showed me through her actions that I can achieve my goals by setting the example, returning to school, and obtaining her doctor of pharmacy degree,” Thompson said.
“It has been very rewarding working with Vincent and experiencing his tremendous growth as a researcher,” Alarcón said. “I met Vincent even before he was a student in my Abstract Algebra class and was immediately struck by his natural curiosity. Over the last year, he has gone from following my suggestions for how to approach the problem we are working on, to devising his own strategies for tackling the problem with a new technique.
“We took some research I had done with another student at IUP 10 years ago (Dominika Polkowska, BS 1999) looking at the structure of finite semirings and expanded it to the polynomials over these finite semirings. To a non-mathematician this might seem like not a big deal, but going from these base semirings to polynomials over them makes the structure vastly more complicated,” he said.
“It will be very exciting to see where Vincent’s career will lead. He has a bright future ahead, and his enthusiasm for mathematics is so contagious he has even re-ignited my own joy in researching semirings,” Alarcón said.
Thompson also has worked with Greg Kenning, professor of physics. Kenning’s research centers around the development of a microchip, an electronic time-temperature indicator, that can be attached to labels and one day be used to help prevent food waste. Thompson’s work with Kenning, documented in his Goldwater Scholarship application, was regarding the decay of magnetism in random disordered systems called spin glasses.
“We made precise measurements of the time decay of the magnetization at a given temperature and used the point in the data where the curve changed its concavity as a characteristic time scale. We then used this to fit our data to a power law which matched a theoretical hypothesis for a critical phase transition,” Thompson said.
As he moves forward in his career, Thompson is interested in applications of abstract math to theoretical physics, but his ultimate career goal is to work in academics.
“I’d like to pursue research at a university, but I also want to teach,” Thompson said. “I feel strongly about affecting the next generation, especially outreach to populations of the world that are underrepresented in higher education, such as the formerly incarcerated and impoverished. I want to show students that math is fun, and that they are capable of succeeding in math, no matter where they come from.”
Thompson recognizes IUP’s efforts to bring diversity into STEM fields, especially the work of Deanne Snavely, dean of IUP’s John J. and Char Kopchick College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
“Things are changing at IUP, and Dr. Snavely is one of the major forces in that work,” he said.
Thompson will spend the first two years of the five-year program at Rice University taking courses and preparing for written and oral qualifying exams. When he passes these exams, he will move into the PhD candidacy portion of the program and begin work on research for his dissertation.
Coincidentally, Arie Van Wieren, an IUP May 2020 graduate from Indiana who won a Goldwater Scholarship in the same year as Thompson, also will be in Houston, working at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
In addition to his NSF grant and his Goldwater Scholarship, Thompson has a number of research and academic achievements.
While an undergraduate, Thompson was a S-COAM scholar at IUP, an award given to students who demonstrate excellence in applied math. He was also the recipient of the IUP Ida Arms Scholarship for Mathematics, the IUP Daniel G. Reiber Scholarship for Physics, the IUP Ken and Lois Widdowson Memorial Scholarship for Mathematics, the Ladies’ Elks Auxiliary Scholarship, and the IUP Transfer scholarship. He was also the recipient of the Peggy Dixon Physics Scholarship from the Society of Physics Students, which is affiliated with the American Physical Society.
Thompson is the son of Lisa Thompson and James Carnahan of Indiana, and has a son, Gavin, 10, who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps to pursue a career in automotive engineering.