When Haynes applied to graduate schools, he hoped he might be offered a Teaching Assistantship. He received his only offer from Arizona State University and got a phone call from the Hispanic Research Center stating he had won the NSF Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (Bridge to Doctorate) Fellowship.

Once he got to ASU, he knew he wanted to transition into something more related to neuroscience. During his first year of grad school, he took a mathematical cell physiology class with professor Sharon Crook. The following year he reached out to her. 

“As far as the math department goes, Sharon has always been deeply supportive. I can tell her all of these personal things that I would normally not tell any sort of authority figure or someone that could sway my professional life,” Haynes said.

Haynes identifies as being poor, being Black, being biracial (half Filipino) which is a unique kind of being Black, and also being a queer male.

“Being part of the LGBTQ community, I’ve met a lot of peers and colleagues who are also part of that community, at different stages with coming out, or being out at work," Haynes said. "There are many mental-health issues that can be exacerbated while feeling closeted and isolated, and navigating that is something I’ve become familiar with.”

“I definitely found my peer group here at ASU. They are scattered across a lot of different departments. But as far as my identifiers go, most people I’ve become close to have been very open to discussing how growing up at the intersection of all these things has really shaped me, and also provided a lot of opportunities for me to create my own barriers. But the people that I’ve met here at ASU have done a lot to help me dispel some of those barriers.

“ASU is this unique ecosystem where I’m allowed to branch out in unique ways that I never would have been able to at other universities.

“Being at ASU and around all these things, like Changemaker Central, for example, where you’re trying to solve community problems through these different lenses – they really do reinforce this idea that being at the intersection of things is very valuable.

“In general, I’ve come out of ASU very optimistic about what it is that I can accomplish, and how I can connect to other people to help them with the things that they want to accomplish, or what we can accomplish together.

We asked Haynes to share a bit more about his doctoral journey as a Sun Devil.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study mathematics?

Answer: I’ve never thought math was my strong suit growing up. I was good at it, but it didn’t really interest me until my undergraduate education. I was originally a premed/biology major for the first few years of my degree. I recall being dissatisfied with lab work and the way courses were taught in biology, example after example. I eventually switched into physics as a major and picked up two books that ultimately convinced me to study mathematics for the rest of my degree. The two books were: Leonard Mlodinow’s “Euclid’s Window,” about the evolution of geometry from the Greeks to modern physicists, and Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation,” which had a central influencing figure who was a mathematician and psychologist helping humanity survive through a period of barbarism through “matrices” and human behavior. I remember those were very formative in my scientific maturation as I had never really connected deep math with helping society. 

Q: What do you like most about mathematics (and your area of concentration)?

A: As far as mathematics goes, what I like most is that my capacity to build “models” has expanded. While research has very formal models, models in general have become central to how I navigate and make sense of life. It’s become very helpful in many areas outside of math. Before I approach most anything, whether it be a project, learning, connecting with people, making decisions, I go through a model building process. I’m always asking whether a certain model and assumptions is appropriate for whatever it is I want to do. Since my concentration is in computational modeling that leverages data, I find myself thinking how I can build better models to do more with my life.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Hands down, Dr. Sharon Crook — my PhD adviser. I’ve worked with Sharon for so many years now and I’ve shared both great intellectual moments with her but also moments for humanity, humility and humor. She taught me that scientists can often get hung up in being a scientist, but with the right nudge you can get them to let loose while still enjoying talking about research. I’ve definitely have her in mind when I’ve met new colleagues from different universities. I always make sure to be the one to remind everyone that everyday fun is also integral to science. She’s also helped me stop the excessive need to show off technical knowledge through jargon. She has a very down-to-earth approach because it’s so important that people relate to you and understand you when the subject matter is so rich.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?

A: Continuously challenge your assumptions about things. School is a period for growth and figuring out even just a small fraction of life. Keep asking whether beliefs about yourself and others are actually beneficial beliefs. Ask whether your beliefs about what is expected of you, what you invest your time in, and what’s important to you are truly convincing to your best knowledge at the time or do they just feel convincing. In different words, be comfortable with feeling lost and seek it out often. Losing your notions about yourself is part of the process of transformation. I think this is especially important after everything related to the pandemic and the civil unrest we’ve all been feeling. The world is different, and we should be in response.

Vergil Haynes hosts regular "slack and relax" for students

Vergil Haynes hosted a regular "slack and relax" for ASU students, shown here teaching by far his oldest student how to slackline. Photo courtesy of Vergil Haynes

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? (This is more related to before the pandemic.)

A: I’ve always been a fan of the grass yard in front of Old Main. I would set up my slackline, some blankets, play music and enjoy the sun at least once a week. Other students would come up and I found it a fun space to connect with people and talk about life in the midst of all the frantic rushing. It felt good to share moments like those with other students going through similar challenges.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time for fun?

A: I’m definitely a hobbyist. If I’m feeling more relaxed, I like to read or listen to podcasts. I try to enjoy the Arizona scenery often with walks, hikes, slacklining and trail running. I’ve managed to try out a lot of outdoor activities since moving here like camping, backpacking and snowboarding. I’m passionate about fitness and like to devote time to calisthenics, tai chi, yoga and traditional strength training. I also have several projects that I try to ground my training in coding, data and technology in things related to my health and general performance.

Vergil Haynes explores the Superstition Mountains

Haynes explores the surrounding Superstition Mountains to de-stress and celebrate passing his comprehensive exams. Photo courtesy of Vergil Haynes

Q: What do you think is most misunderstood about math by the general public?

A: Math is just crunching numbers. It’s not, and some of mathematicians aren’t even good at that. Some really enjoy that, some of us find that really dull.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I have a lot of family members who have been incarcerated and unable to rebuild a life after reentering society. While I couldn’t solve something like the problem of privatized prisons and the overall corrections market, I think building an organization or cooperative that focused on reentry education, wealth building training, and personal and relational therapy for those leaving the prison system would be something I would put that money in right away.

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences