Travis Dillon ’21 is the recipient of one of the nation’s most esteemed awards for undergraduate students doing mathematics research.
Dillon, who majored in mathematics while diving deep into a wide range of research before graduating from Lawrence in June, will receive the 2022 AMS-MAA-SIAM Frank and Brennie Morgan Prize for Outstanding Research in Mathematics by an Undergraduate Student.
The Morgan Prize, presented jointly by the American Mathematical Society (AMS), the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), will be awarded January 5 in Seattle.
Now a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Dillon called the “incredible honor” a testament to the great mentors he had as an undergrad, including Lawrence math professor Elizabeth Sattler, with whom he collaborated frequently over the past four years.
“Liz Sattler has been, in more ways than I can count, an extraordinary mentor, advisor, and collaborator,” he said.
In making its announcement of the award, the AMS said Dillon earned the Morgan Prize for his “significant work in number theory, combinatorics, discrete geometry, and symbolic dynamics.”
“When I was told that I won, I was stunned,” Dillon said. “Every winner in the last 15 years had attended high-profile universities—either Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford or Yale.”
Sattler said she first recognized Dillon’s vast potential as a math student when he dove into an independent research project with her as a sophomore.
“I was shocked at his ability to solve challenging, high-level problems in such a short amount of time,” she said. “I had anticipated this project would last an entire summer for a full-time student, but Travis solved that problem and pushed it further in just 10 weeks while still taking classes in Spring Term. Every time I threw something new at him or pointed him in a different direction, he ran away with it. It was just amazing.”
For his Senior Experience project last year, Dillon wrote a book, Graphs, Groups, Infinity: Three stories in mathematics, that looked to explain math concepts in a way that people with minimal math experience could understand and appreciate. He did it, Sattler said, with a mix of authority, expertise, and humor.
“He finished with over 200 pages of creative and imaginative text complete with pictures, stories, and exercises,” she said. “It’s more fun than your standard textbook with things like Travis Dillon’s Rule of the Infinite—‘If you think it’s true, it probably isn’t’—and abstract multiplication tables filled in with rubber ducks with hats or scarves. This was a great way for him to finish his time here at Lawrence and allowed him to put all those wonderful quirks of a liberal arts student into a document that will be around for a long time.”
The book currently lives in a digital format, with a few printed copies at Lawrence courtesy of a print-on-demand service. Now Dillon is exploring options on how “to best get it out into the world.”
The book project, he said, was a great opportunity to meld his love of math with a growing interest in writing.
“There’s a certain Zen to selecting and arranging words that communicate an idea exactly; to crafting sentences, paragraphs, sections, and chapters in my own particular style; to being sly, quirky, serious, profound, and irreverent precisely as I choose,” he said. “It’s frustrating, too, at times, but so is math. To a certain extent, difficulty is part of the appeal.”
While at Lawrence, Dillon completed seven papers, six of them published or accepted, four single-authored. In addition to independent studies with Lawrence faculty, he attended summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) at Texas A&M University and Baruch College, and he spent a year in the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics program.
Scott Corry, professor of mathematics and chair of the Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science Department, called the Morgan Prize “a stunning and well-deserved achievement” for Dillon.
“Our goal at Lawrence is to help every student reach their full potential, and Travis’ potential is off the charts,” Corry said. “We are proud to have supported his development, through courses, mentoring, and research at LU as well as in off-campus programs, and we are eager to see his future contributions to mathematics and the broader world.”
This isn’t the first time Dillon has been honored for his math research while at Lawrence. Earlier this year, he received a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) award that will assist his work at MIT. A year prior, he was named a Goldwater Scholar, also a highly competitive honor.
Besides Sattler, Dillon said he’s had incredible mentors every step of the way. He was first inspired to pursue math while growing up near Newport, Washington. Two summers spent at a Canada/USA Mathcamp set him on his way.
This fall, Dillon began his graduate work at MIT as an MIT Presidential Fellow. Since 1999, MIT has used its Presidential Fellowships to “recruit the most outstanding students worldwide to pursue graduate studies at the Institute.” It currently supports 110 to 125 new graduate students as Presidential Fellows each year.
The Morgan Prize, awarded annually to an undergraduate student for outstanding research in mathematics, was established in 1995 and is entirely endowed by a gift from Mrs. Frank (Brennie) Morgan. Learn more here about the prize and previous recipients.
The award is one more step on the journey, Dillon said. Whether it’s more research or elevating the writing he started with his book project, the possibilities going forward are plentiful.
“I really enjoy working on research, but explaining and getting people fired up about math, leading them to their own aha! moments—that’s a different kind of joy,” he said. “Fortunately, these things often go hand in hand, and I’m looking forward to a long career in both.”