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Dean’s Medalist melds mathematics and music degrees

Michael Horst at ASU convocation
May 22, 2014

Michael Horst has always been a talented musician. At Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, he played baritone sax in the marching band, piano in the jazz band and cello in the orchestra. As a junior, he was selected to perform with the national group Bands of America in the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California. A few months later, he played piano with the National Honor Orchestra.

It seemed like a natural choice for Horst to major in music composition at Arizona State. So he applied, and got rejected.

In high school, Horst also took the most challenging math classes that were offered. As a senior, he mastered calculus three and differential equations, and along with the MAT300 and other courses he had taken during the summer at ASU, he accumulated about four semesters worth of a math degree. His adviser told him he should declare a major, and math seemed like the obvious next choice.

After a few more math courses, he decided to try to double major. He went back and applied with the music department a second time. This time, the result was different. “I was more open to modern music. There was this one piece, it was a piano piece I composed with chunks of music pasted all over the page, not in a continuous line, with different arrows pointing out and about. I figured, why not? It’s not all that wild. When I actually played it, it sounded pretty. They seemed impressed that I had applied again.”

Reactions are mixed when Horst tells people of his two majors. “I usually get either shock and confusion that these things are so different, how could they possibly meld. Or a deep empathy and a realization that yes, of course, what better majors to combine.”

Horst graduated last week with bachelor degrees in both mathematics and music composition, and was selected as the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Medalist for the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. He proudly carried the school’s gonfalon during the CLAS Convocation ceremony on May 15 at Wells Fargo Arena.

“Michael has taken an amazing number of advanced and graduate-level mathematics courses, and has excelled in both theoretical and applied mathematics. He has strong intellectual curiosity, a real appreciation for the beauty of our subject and he approaches challenging problems with enthusiasm,” said Nancy Childress, undergraduate adviser and associate professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. “If that weren't enough, he is also the very definition of a liberal arts and sciences scholar, having a concurrent major in music and a strong background in the humanities.”

Through a funded summer experience, Computational Science Training for Undergraduates in the Mathematical Sciences (MCTP/CSUMS), Horst had the opportunity to conduct research as an undergraduate. He worked with mathematics professor Rosemary Renaut on inverse problems. They teamed up with biodesign researchers and worked on a project that would potentially lead to a closed system where bacteria could release enough electricity to clean water. The problem was the bacteria were not releasing enough electricity to feed off, and they were trying to figure out which of their proteins was causing the most resistance. “They provided large chunks of data that corresponded to a particular inverse problem. That was enjoyable to work on.”

Last summer, Horst worked with Renaut again on a similar type of problem. This time Horst got to visit Michigan State University for a week to work with their director, who eventually became his external adviser for his thesis. Horst credits Renaut for much of his success as a researcher and as a student. “Professor Renaut is fantastic. She’s tons of fun and she will get on my case when I need it, but also be laid-back and take a break if needed. We worked well together. And she’s very good at what she does. I think she’s a good model for professionalism in her field.”

Renaut said it was truly inspiring to work with Horst. “I have been constantly astonished at his work ethic and overall interest in a broad education. In completing his studies at ASU, he has taken a route that is far from easy, regularly taking more than 20 credits a semester, almost always earning a semester GPA around 4.0, even while taking challenging graduate level courses in mathematics.

“While completing a rigorous program in mathematics, simultaneously he has studied music as a second major, with the obvious demands for practice, and music composition. At the same time, he took a semester of Chinese and two of Russian. Michael is an incredibly talented young man.”

Horst also had the opportunity to attend the Field of Dreams conference in October, which he described as “really nifty.” The conference brings together faculty in the mathematical sciences and students who are from backgrounds that are underrepresented in those fields. “I think it’s a good thing,” he added.

Horst described the difference between university level math versus high school math as exceptionally different. “Up through calculus, math is taught and done in a very particular way. Often in a very bad way. There are a lot of problems with the pedagogy at that level. But it’s mainly ‘solve for x.’ That almost unilaterally doesn’t change, from kindergarten up through the end of the calculus sequence, with the potential exclusion of what was for me the first semester of high school geometry. I think it’s usually a single semester of geometry is closer to what I would call ‘real math.’ I think that for a lot of people, if they enjoy math, it’s like that. There is a chance that they won’t enjoy math as it becomes later on and are best suited doing engineering or some kind of science that uses these things, like physics or something. But if they do try out some of the level 300 courses, and those really resonate with them, that’s basically what the rest of it is like. And they’ll think it’s better.”

Horst agreed that math gets a bad rap in society. “As for math in general, yeah, there’s a lot of math phobia. And it’s a very real thing. I still have math phobia in combinatorics. I’ve gotten over it a lot, and it’s very intense and very unfounded for the most part, at least for me. Some people I’m sure are legitimately bad at math, but it is upsetting being questioned, ‘When am I going to use this in my life?’ [It] only ever happens in a math class."

Horst disagrees that the purpose of education is as a means to a good job and good income, describing that view as “myopic at best.”

“People don’t seem to realize that being forced to try different things in a variety of fields is there just to make you more elastic and more intelligent. I don’t know much about neuroscience, but I think the act of trying is in fact what makes one literally more intelligent from a synaptic level. And sure, you’re not going to necessarily have to be finding the area of this whatever in your daily life – but having that form of problem-solving skills is incredibly important.

"And similarly, being able to read a piece of literature and contemplate the human experience, and then being able to cohesively discuss that is also important. Knowing how the Ottoman Empire was formed and how it fell, these are all important things. Having the right kind of curiosity to try poking at that dead frog a few more times. It’s all important, and people don’t seem to think about it in that way. I think that’s kind of tragic.”

Michael Horst is now headed to Ohio State University to pursue his doctorate in mathematics. Reflecting on his time as a math major at ASU, Horst says, “I really have very few complaints about any of the professors I’ve studied with. In fact, the only complaint is that I didn’t get a chance to take a second or third class with them.”

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