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ASU graduate earns Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize

(From left) Assistant Professor Zilin Jiang, Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize recipient Camron Upshur and School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences Director Donatella Danielli. Photo by ASU

April 28, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

Arizona State University student Camron Upshur is the recipient of the 2023 Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize, the highest honor a mathematics undergraduate can receive. He is graduating this spring from the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences with a Bachelor of Science in mathematics, minor in physics and certificate of cryptography.

Upshur maintained a 4.0 GPA while taking many of the most challenging mathematics courses the school offers. The awards committee members were very impressed with his record in a large array of advanced courses, including graduate-level classes.

He earned a Provost’s Scholarship to attend ASU and made the Dean’s List every semester. He is also a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, which recognizes the brightest undergraduate scholars in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics from universities across the nation. Fewer than 2% of ASU graduates are selected for this distinction annually.

“Camron is a highly intelligent and motivated individual with a genuine passion for mathematics and problem-solving,” said Zilin Jiang, assistant professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences with a joint appointment in the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence. “He is an independent thinker who is not afraid to tackle challenging problems and think creatively to find solutions.”

Upshur is an only child and Tempe, Arizona, native who graduated from Corona del Sol High School. He originally thought he might pursue a physics or chemistry major in college. In his high school math classes he says he always did more than what was asked because he loved to learn about the topic. Math was never boring or predictable to him. After taking the AMC 12, his thinking about college changed.

“I had never really had any experience with math competitions growing up, so much of math to me was memory and some problem-solving here and there. But this competition showed me a different side of math I had never seen before. It was new and all about problem-solving, and less about knowing everything. From then on, I knew I wanted to study mathematics in college instead of physics or chemistry," Upshur said.

As a first-generation college student who lives by himself, Upshur works as a server assistant at an upscale restaurant in Scottsdale to pay his bills. There were times during his undergraduate experience that he felt he could not relate with some of his friends who lived with their parents or did not have jobs.

“It takes a toll to juggle both life and school responsibilities,” Upshur said. “However, I did well — and I am quite proud of myself for not giving up when times were hard.”

Upshur is a founding member of a new student club called Mathematics Tomorrow, a place for students to enjoy mathematics and solving problems. They started out as just a group of classmates in the breezeways of Wexler Hall, but eventually grew into an official club. Upshur made many great friends and always loved learning new and interesting facets of mathematics.

The Charles Wexler Awards were established in 1977, in memory of Professor Charles Wexler, with a gift from his wife, Helen, to honor his accomplishments in the field of mathematics and his contributions to the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. Wexler was the founding chairman of the Department of Mathematics at ASU. At the time of his retirement, he had accumulated 47 years of service, the longest period of faculty service in the university’s history. In 1977, the A-Wing of the Physical Sciences Center was named after Wexler in appreciation of his outstanding service to the university from 1930 to 1977. The 46th annual Charles Wexler Awards were held on March 27.

“Mr. Upshur is an outstanding student and a most deserving winner of the Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize,” said Donatella Danielli, professor and director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

Upshur will be pursuing a master’s degree in mathematics at the University of California, San Diego. First, he will be attending the Algebra, Combinatorics and Statistics REU this summer at Texas State University.

We asked Upshur more about his journey as a Sun Devil.

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

Answer: It is hard to say. Every professor has taught me something new and important that I will carry with me throughout my studies. The most impactful professors to me were John Jones and Zilin Jiang. John Jones was the most challenging professor for me. Taking advanced linear algebra and intermediate abstract algebra with him really taught me to be precise and completely rigorous in all mathematics. Zilin Jiang was the most fun professor I have had (although every professor has been fun). Taking combinatorics with him was so fun; every lecture I saw a new trick or a new approach to a problem I had already seen. He really taught me to think outside the box when faced with any problem.

Q: What is most misunderstood about mathematics by the general public?

A: I feel like most think mathematics is all about computation, but it’s not. Mathematics can be quite creative and noncomputational at times.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite places to go campus were the new places. I would often take the shuttle to other campuses to explore. I love to just wander around until I find a nice view or quiet place to study. I rarely study in the same place for long.

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

A: Currently, some of my favorite things to do in my free time are playing games like chess, backgammon and poker, watching interesting YouTube videos, occasionally playing piano or guitar, and most of all I love to solve problems from the various math books I own.

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

A: I think one of the biggest problems of the modern era is sustaining Earth. If I was given $40 million, I would try to solve this problem, as it threatens all of humanity.

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