Dean's medalist plans to pursue PhD in mathematics

Headshot of Ethan Leventhal in front of Old Main on the Tempe campus.

Ethan Leventhal is the 2024 Dean’s Medalist for the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He is graduating from Barrett, the Honors College, with a Bachelor of Science in mathematics and certificates in cryptology and informatics. Courtesy photo


Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

Scottsdale, Arizona, native Ethan Leventhal started as a math major because he loved math but wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with it.

The 2024 Dean’s Medalist for the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences soon found a path for himself though and plans to pursue a PhD in algorithms, combinatorics and optimization at Georgia Tech with the aim of becoming a math professor.

“I plan to become a math professor because I have always loved teaching and want to make a meaningful, positive impact on many students’ lives,” Leventhal said.

The Barrett, the Honors College student earns his Bachelor of Science in mathematics. and certificates in cryptology and informatics, this spring.

He will also receive the Moeur Award at graduation and was recognized last year with the Jack H. Hawes Memorial Mathematics Research Scholarship. 

“My experience at ASU made me confident that I am on the right path in life, because the school of math has been full of very supportive people at every turn. My professors, especially for the upper-division courses, were extremely passionate about their subject and caring to their students," Leventhal said.

“Having Ethan in our program has been a boon for everyone,” Assistant Professor Zilin Jiang said. “His enthusiasm for tackling tough questions and his willingness to assist others in understanding them has created a more collaborative and supportive learning environment. It’s students like Ethan who elevate the entire program, not just through their personal achievements but by inspiring their peers to strive for more.”

Leventhal is working on research with Assistant Professor Jonathan Montaño and Jiang, delving into how certain mathematical ideas in algebraic geometry and graph theory come together. 

“Specifically, Ethan, along with his colleague Jacob Cooper, developed a formula to figure out multidegrees of what we call binomial edge ideals. These concepts are not just abstract; they connect deeper algebraic theories with real-world structures, where some of the most exciting math happens," Jiang said.

"What's impressive about Ethan is how quickly he got a handle on these complex ideas, which is no small feat. He’s shown a real knack for diving into tough topics and making sense of them rapidly. This kind of work is crucial for pushing math forward and can even spark new insights in fields like computer science and engineering.”

We asked him to share more about his experience as a Sun Devil.

Note: Answers may have been lightly edited for length, clarity or grammar.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

Answer: I used to think that the best students were those who could be independent, who could learn and work hard on their own. After my years at ASU, my perspective has changed to the complete opposite: I think the most successful students are those who reach out for help when they get stuck, offer help to fellow students who need it, and learn to communicate and collaborate with others. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school? 

A: Make sure to leave time each day to do something fun for yourself! It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all of the work and responsibilities of school, so don’t forget that you deserve to take breaks. I’ve found that my mental health is much better (and I am able to finish work more easily) when I have enough non-school time in my schedule. 

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time (when not studying or doing school-related tasks)? 

A: In my spare time I love to go on bike rides. I have a fixed-gear bike, which is different from a regular bike because there is no coasting. The pedals are directly connected to the rear wheel, which means you can slow down by putting resistance on the pedals instead of using brakes. This provides a very unique experience which I find more engaging and enjoyable, so I go on rides almost every day. Sometimes I go with friends for a casual ride, sometimes with a fast group for exercise, and sometimes by myself.

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

A: One common misunderstanding about mathematics is that it’s not useful in everyday life. Students often ask when they are ever going to use math after they leave school, because they can’t imagine math being helpful, but I can’t imagine a day when math ISN’T useful. I use concepts from mathematics in all parts of my life, from basic algebra questions to complex logical arguments. I wish more people could see the usefulness of mathematics in daily life. 

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

A: My favorite place on campus is Noble Library. Whenever I am stressed about schoolwork, I go to the library for a few hours to study. Being surrounded by other people working makes it so much easier for me to work, and I always leave the library feeling accomplished and more relaxed.

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

A: I would put the money towards fighting tuberculosis. A YouTuber named John Green has been spreading the word about tuberculosis, which is the most deadly infectious disease in the world. It is curable, which means it is almost completely gone in all first-world countries, but it still kills millions of people each year in poor parts of the world. I would contribute this money to making testing and treatment more accessible in the countries that need it.

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