Highest Honors - A White House ceremony recognizes
graduate math mentoring at Iowa

At approximately 3 p.m. on Jan. 6, Philip Kutzko, collegiate fellow and professor of mathematics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, attended a ceremony at the White House.

It was a very special event, not just because it was held the White House, but also because the ceremony was held in Kutzko’s honor and in recognition of a program he helped create to mentor minority students in graduate-level mathematics and to help them obtain doctoral degrees.

For that and more, President Barack Obama recognized Kutzko as a recipient of the prestigious 2009 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM). Thanks to Kutzko’s work and that of his colleagues, the UI math department currently accounts for between 5 and 10 percent of all U.S. doctoral degrees in mathematics awarded annually to individuals from minority groups.

It wasn’t the first time Kutzko received such an honor. In 2005, as a member of the UI Department of Mathematics, Kutzko shared in the receipt of a 2004 PAESMEM Award, also presented at the White House. Supported and administered by the National Science Foundation (NSF), that award was the only one of its kind presented to an academic department that year.

Kutzko shares his thoughts on why he embarked on a career as a mentor and what motivates him to continue helping others.

You have spent most of your life as a research mathematician. What motivated you to become so deeply involved in mentoring underrepresented mathematics graduate students?

I grew up in housing projects in New York City and was in grade school when the Russian satellite Sputnik was launched. I and many of my fellow students benefited greatly from the resulting national initiative to broaden participation of American students in the sciences and yet, due to the prevailing culture at the time, this initiative was largely limited to white males. My colleagues and I, several of whom have similar backgrounds, felt that it was time to finish the job: to build a graduate program in mathematics at The University of Iowa that would truly reflect our national demographics and could serve as a national model.

How did you and your colleagues go about this?

We built on the values for which our state is so well known: community and hard work. We worked hard to gain the trust of individuals who had spent their lives at undergraduate minority-serving institutions, laboring to see that their students had the opportunity to go to graduate school. Slowly, they began to trust us with their students, and we worked hard to honor this trust. We built mentoring and community into the very core of our graduate program, not only for students from minority populations, but for all of the students and, as we began to succeed, we were able to attract more students.

What have you accomplished?

Our department has, over the past several years, accounted for between 5 and 10 percent of the yearly total of minority Ph.D.s in mathematics nationally. These students have all obtained good positions, most of them as faculty. We also have worked hard to increase the number of students attending undergraduate institutions in our region who go on to graduate school in mathematics. We have partnered with faculty in these schools to form the Heartland Partnership, which is funded through the department’s National Science Foundation Vertical Integration of Research and Education grant.

How do you plan to sustain this success?

As I mentioned, a critical component of our program has been our ties with individual faculty at undergraduate institutions that serve students who have traditionally been underrepresented in mathematics graduate programs. In order to institutionalize these ties, we have, together with our partners at these institutions, created an organization that fosters and expands the community we have built. The National Alliance for Doctoral Studies in the Mathematical Sciences is an NSF-supported program involving approximately 80 math sciences faculty at undergraduate institutions together with faculty in 12 graduate departments in the math sciences nationally. It supports summer research experiences for undergraduates at our three Iowa public universities, a national conference each year, and many other activities. (To learn more visit: www.mathalliance.org.)

I understand that, as a young man, you were on the 1963 march on Washington and heard Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. What are your memories of this experience and how does it relate to your present work?

As I mentioned, I grew up in New York City, and the summer that the march took place was the summer before I entered college. Several of us set out for Washington in the middle of the night, and when the buses that were supposed to take us were full, we ended up traveling in a fleet of hastily assembled taxi cabs. Because of this, the adventure of getting there and back was almost as exciting as the march itself.

My memory of the march itself was one of great optimism. Kennedy was in the White House, and there was very wide support for the Civil Rights Movement. The speakers were riveting and were a diverse and impressive group. Sadly, our drivers insisted that we leave just as Dr. King began his speech, and we heard it only as we were walking to the cabs.

The memory of my participation in the March on Washington faded over the years until I read the news coverage of its 40th anniversary. That 40th anniversary triggered something in me. The notion that 40 years had passed seemed almost Biblical to me, a detour through the desert on the way to the Promised Land. And like many other Americans, I began to think about those 40 years, what progress we had made and what was left for us to accomplish in order for us to truly become one country. Since then, I have thought a lot about Dr. King and the role he played in our nation’s history during his all-too-short time here, and he has become the person who has influenced me most in the work that I do. I’ve read everything I can about Dr. King, and he has affected me profoundly these last five years.

Gary Galluzzo
with photo by Tom Jorgensen

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© The University of Iowa 2009