New faculty: Derek Young

New faculty Derek Young knows that the “aha” moments students often have in math classes are one of the best rewards in teaching. When the opportunity to work at Mount Holyoke arose, Young knew it would be a great fit because of the focus on teaching.

The power of mathematics came into sharp focus for Derek Young, when, in college, he realized he could benefit intellectually as well as financially from tutoring calculus students, all while earning his Ph.D. A bachelor’s degree at Iowa State University turned into a mathematics Ph.D., with Young working as a lecturer at nearby St. Olaf College before his Ph.D. was even finished.

While supporting himself with tutoring and teaching gigs was nice, Young quickly figured out that the “aha” moments students often have in math classes are their own reward. With his Ph.D. finished, Young realized he wanted to keep that “aha” feeling close at hand. “I think my advisor realized before I did that what I wanted was to be at a teaching college,” said Young. Although he also likes doing research, when the opportunity to work at a teaching-focused institution like Mount Holyoke arose, Young knew it would be a great fit.

His research on combinatorial matrix theory uses combinatorial parameters to compute algebraic parameters and vice versa. This work gives insight for the inverse eigenvalue problem for graphs, which has applications in a variety of mathematical fields.

One thing Young is especially looking forward to in his new role is giving students strong foundations for building careers in mathematics — and beyond. This year he’ll be offering a class in graph theory, a popular course for budding mathematicians. “Graph theory is a big part of my research, so exposing students to graph theory early could motivate them to get involved in my research,” he said.

Young hopes he’ll have a group of students who want to do exactly that. “Working with students outside of the classroom creates a stronger relationship with them,” he said. Furthermore, having undergraduate research experience is really important for navigating the research-heavy world of graduate school. But, ultimately, it’s not just the padding of résumés that gets Young excited about involving Mount Holyoke students in his research. For Young, watching fledgling researchers learn to think outside the box and find new ways to tackle research problems is its own reward. It’s that same “aha” moment he found to be so rewarding as a tutor so many years ago.

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