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Celebrating Mathematics

Meeting Eduardo Teixeira, Ramanujan Prize winner 2017

18/10/2017 - Trieste

Brazilian mathematician Eduardo Teixeira recently came to ICTP to accept his award as the 2017 recipient of the Ramanujan Prize for Young Mathematicians from Developing Countries. Besides recognizing Professor Teixeira’s outstanding work in the field of Partial Differential Equations (PDE), the Prize also rewarded his efforts in pursuing high-level research at his former institution in Brazil, where over the last decade he founded and directed one of the major research groups in nonlinear PDEs in Latin America.

Professor Teixeira obtained a PhD in mathematics from the University of Texas Austin in 2005, under the supervision of Professor Luis A. Caffarelli. He was awarded the 2013 Mathematical Congress of the Americas Prize, and elected permanent fellow of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences in 2015. He worked as a full professor at the Universidade Federal do Ceara in Fortaleza from 2010 to 2017, and he is now a full professor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Central Florida.

ICTP science writer Anna Lombardi has interviewed him to find out more about the stereotypes, the turning points and the unconditional love for mathematics that have characterized his whole career.

 
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Professor Teixeira, how did you get into mathematics?

I have always been intrigued by this subject. As a kid, my father used to challenge me with mathematical tricks: small things, like trying to estimate a bill in a restaurant or in a supermarket. I was very little at the time but I could already feel I was playing with something very powerful and cool. Back then, I was sure I wanted to study math. When I undertook my undergraduate studies, though, something funny happened: I was 18, concerned about financial security and misled by common stereotypes showing mathematicians as weird guys with crazy hair and no money. I didn’t want to become that kind of person. So, partially victim of my own judgment, I entered in the electrical engineering and computer sciences school to become an engineer. But after nearly three years I started feeling I had made a bad choice. I realized that you can follow a renowned path for the wrong reason but only if you follow your path through passion, you are sure to be successful. It took me some time to realize and accept the fact that you can be a very successful professional as a mathematician. Math was the only thing I was meant to be doing, I would have never had regrets later on.

 

Are you still happy with your career change?

I was really blessed with my change, in many different ways. My entire life changed. I not only pursued the career I wanted, I owe mathematics my wife too: I met her in the mathematics department in Fortaleza.

 

Did your family support you in the decision to leave your studies in engineering?

   
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My dad didn’t take that decision very well, at first. He was very proud of me becoming an engineer. Only after he felt I was truly determined in pursuing a career in math, did he fully support me. I finished my undergraduate studies in mathematics very early, started a Master in the same university in Fortaleza (Universidade Federal do Ceara), and then I decided to go for a PhD.

 

Why did you opt for a PhD in the USA?

I was interested in partial differential equations and a professor in my department in Fortaleza encouraged me, telling me, “You should try to work with the best person in the field, we should try to contact Professor Luis Caffarelli in Austin”. He was, and still is, a leading expert on this topic. That was a long shot for me, as I was coming from a very small university in Brazil that didn’t have any international visibility. By coincidence, it happened that Professor Caffarelli was in Rio de Janeiro attending a conference, so we went there to meet him in person. I was looking at him during the conference, too shy to go and talk to him directly, so my professor introduced me. Professor Caffarelli was very gentle and kind. He told me to apply and that he would personally follow my application. In 2001 I started my PhD in his group.

 

Do you have any mathematician who has inspired you in your career?

There are many. Luis Caffarelli, my PhD supervisor, is surely one of them. I would also like to mention Marcelo Viana, the first Ramanujan Prize winner in 2005: we work in completely different fields but the vision he has for the development of mathematics, this is something that has always inspired me.

 

The Ramanujan Prize you have been awarded recognizes your outstanding work in the field of partial differential equations (PDE). How would you explain your research and its potential to non-experts?

PDE are mathematical models of physical laws describing many phenomena in nature. We find them in physics, biology, chemistry, even financial mathematics and social behavior. There are many interesting questions of the theory, both from an applied and pure perspective. I myself focus at the interface between applied and pure mathematics. I work with regularity theories, trying to understand the smoothness of the solutions.

 

Why do you think people are generally so scared of mathematics?

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It’s funny, because I think everybody likes to be creative and solve problems. And solving problems is the key of mathematics. It’s not just a set of rules and formulas to learn by heart, it’s way beyond that. I do believe it will be important to revisit the roots of our educational system to promote creativity of our students. I have three kids and I can see how creative, intrigued and motivated to learn they are. After some time, though, you feel that the educational process kills that. This is why we lose the more playful side of mathematics over time. It should be our job to inspire our kids, to teach them to keep asking questions without killing their creativity, to make math more accessible, more intriguing and motivational. The effect of this will quickly spread across our society.

 

Have you done outreach activities to try to encourage the dialogue between mathematicians and the general public in the past?

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I have been giving lectures for public awareness, on the applications of math in the real world, for example. The advantage of working with PDE is that you can really make this very appealing for a general public. I think mathematicians should try to do this more, to engage people to become more aware of mathematics and science in general. Some other applied scientists already do it very well, as I had the chance to see after my election into the Brazilian Academy of Sciences in 2015: they show society what they are doing, and are able to convey their ideas without being too technical, telling them why what they are doing is important. It’s a real game changer, as this is how society sees scientific fields, which automatically has an impact on how resources are distributed. I am well aware that this will be more of a challenge for pure mathematics. But you can always explain things without sticking with formulas.

 

What’s the role of mathematics in the modern world?

I would say it’s a more predominant subject in respect to the past, and this should keep increasing. All technological breakthroughs depend, in one way or another, on mathematics discoveries. We are inventing now the mathematics that will support the technology of the future.

 

Do you think math is discovered or invented?

That’s a tough question. My first instinct is to say mathematics is invented: even if its purpose is often to model real things, it is created by human creativity. Besides this, we shouldn’t regard mathematics as just applied: pure mathematics is also very worth pursuing. It is not a tool to tackle one specific problem, math is way beyond that, it’s a human endowment that we should value.

 

After such a brilliant career in the USA, why did you decide to go back to Brazil?

Ten years ago, I decided to return to my home town, in one of the poorest regions of Brazil. It was a major decision: many colleagues were warning me that I was about to destroy my career. Nevertheless, to become a professional and do good mathematics was part of my ambition, but I was also interested in the social impact of my profession. I felt I could contribute to the development of mathematics in the northeast of Brazil and, hopefully, to the overall mathematical Brazilian community. Despite all the advice my colleagues gave me, once again I decided to follow my passion. It wasn’t easy, especially at the beginning, but I managed to find my way in the end. This ICTP prize crowns this important part of my career. It’s somehow telling me “it was all worth it”.

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 Eduardo Teixeira with Fernando Quevedo, ICTP's director

 

 

---- Anna Lombardi

 

 

Further details

Photos of the ceremony are available on ICTP's Flickr page.

More information about Professor Teixeira can be found on his personal page.

 

 

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The Ramanujan Prize is awarded annually to a researcher from a developing country who is less than 45 years of age on 31 December of the year of the award, and who has conducted outstanding research in a developing country. Researchers working in any branch of the mathematical sciences are eligible.

The prize is sponsored by ICTP, the International Mathematical Union, and the Department of Science and Technology of the Government of India.

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