Summer 2009

Faculty Focus: Joseph Bonin

Professor of Mathematics Joseph Bonin received the Oscar and Shoshana Trachtenberg Prize in Teaching at the 2009 Commencement ceremony.

By Julia Parmley

In February, GW Professor of Mathematics Joseph Bonin learned from his department chair John Conway that he had been nominated by students for the 2009 Oscar and Shoshana Trachtenberg Prize in Teaching. The news rendered Dr. Bonin speechless, but he did not expect to hear any more about it. And he didn’t—until Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman called in April to congratulate him on receiving the award.

“It really was a complete surprise,”
says Dr. Bonin. “I’ve been aware that Students appreciate a well-organized course that is structured so they can really learn, but I wasn’t before aware of the depth of the impact I’ve had on some students. Obviously, this is deeply gratifying and rather moving.”

Dr. Bonin came to GW in 1989 as an assistant professor of mathematics, but he says it was a field he came to by “fortunate circumstances. ” While the subject did not spark his interest in high school, an inclination toward technical fields led him to take linear
algebra as an undergraduate at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. “At the start of the course, all of the students really struggled with the assigned problems, most
of which required proofs,” he says. “Following our failure to solve the problems, our teacher would solve them in elegant ways, with arguments laid out so clearly and precisely that my natural reaction was ‘I want to be able to do that.’ Precision and elegance sparked my interest in math.”

Dr. Bonin earned a bachelor’s degree in math from Assumption College in 1984 and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1989 with both his master’s degree and doctorate in math. He has taught a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses at GW during his tenure including abstract algebra, combinatorics and elementary number theory, which he deems among his favorite classes due to its study of properties of familiar objects, such as positive integers.

Dr. Bonin says his range of classes reflects the broad training all mathematicians receive. “Different parts of math are very interdependent so you have to have a broad knowledge,” he says. “The more you know, the more you can see connections. Mathematicians often do their best work when they work between fields.”

Dr. Bonin’s thoughtful approach to teaching—including adjusting his teaching style for each one of his classes—helps keep the subjects “fresh.”

“One thing I focus on is connecting with each new group of students,” he says. “I figure out how I can change my teaching to get them involved. I encourage students to ask questions and make presentations on problems at the beginning of every class, which can boost their interest and inspire them to do better work.” Dr. Bonin also offers bonus problems that challenge students to go beyond what is required on weekly homework.

Dr. Bonin’s research is in the field of matroid theory, a subject that provides a general framework for studying notions such as independence, closure and rank that arise in many areas of math, including linear algebra and graph theory. While matroid theory
has important applications in physics, combinatorial optimization and coding theory, among other areas, Dr. Bonin’s research focuses on the pure theory, with geometry providing much of the motivation for his work. “Some work in math is useful, but some
is just art—and, as in art, you don’t ask what you can do with it,” says Dr. Bonin. “It’s just inherently fascinating. As in art, aesthetic concerns are very important in pure math.” He has published numerous research articles in matroid theory and routinely gives invited lectures on the topic.

While he focuses on pure theory, Dr. Bonin says that pure and applied math work together in a mutually enriching way, with the result that math is behind much of what surrounds us. “Reliable networks, whether electrical, communication or transportation,
require math in their design, as do computers and other electronics, as well as our buildings and homes and most of the things in them,” he says. “Everyone needs to understand the data we encounter in the news related to health and public policy; for
instance, everyone needs to be able to see through the spin and evaluate the validity of arguments in politics. Math is the model subject for fostering such precise thinking.”

In addition to teaching and research, Dr. Bonin has taken on administrative duties for the past three years as deputy department chair and graduate committee chair. He supervised the department’s move from Old Main to Monroe Hall in 2007 and helped create a post-baccalaureate certificate in math to launch in the fall.

To wind down after a long day, Dr. Bonin enjoys reading in Spanish, a language he began learning during a sabbatical at the Universitat Polit`ecnica de Catalunya in Barcelona in 2002. On the weekends he enjoys biking on the C&O Canal, visiting the
farmers market near his home in Arlington, Va., listening to classical music and cooking. But teaching and research are what Dr. Bonin finds most fulfilling.

“GW has a lot of good students and being in an interesting city adds to the appeal,” he says. “I believe we attract a lot of great people to GW.”


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