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Outstanding student, professor earn top math awards

two people holding award plaques with award namesake
May 21, 2015

Arizona State University student Jakob Hansen and ASU professor Horst Thieme have received Charles Wexler awards for their excellence in mathematics.

Charles 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 Complex was named after Wexler in appreciation of his outstanding service to the university.

Jakob Hansen

Hansen, a mathematics and economics student, received the Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize. The award is presented each year to the outstanding undergraduate senior mathematics major in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, selected by an awards committee based on faculty nominations.

Hansen said he is honored to receive the prize: “It means I am now responsible for representing ASU well in my future mathematical endeavors, which is a great responsibility.”

“I’m very grateful to the Wexler family for everything they’ve done,” Hansen said. “My grandfather studied mathematics at ASU and told me that he had had Charles Wexler as a professor. So the Wexlers have had an impact on the mathematical training of more than one generation of my family.” 

Hansen initially decided to major in mathematics in order to prepare himself for graduate school in economics.

“Math classes started to fascinate me more and more, and I realized that I could make broader and more important contributions if I focused on the mathematical side," Hansen said.

After receiving multiple graduate-school offers, Hansen plans to attend the Applied Mathematics and Computational Science program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is interested in taking pure mathematics concepts and applying them to real problems. 

As a sophomore, Hansen participated in ASU’s Computational Science training for Undergraduates in the Mathematical Sciences (CSUMS) with Rosemary Renaut, professor of mathematics, who praised his mathematical sophistication. 

“I first met Jakob as part of a team of three students working on an REU [Research Experiences for Undergraduates] project. I was immediately impressed by his attention to the mathematical details of the problem, and ability to independently research the background,” Renaut said. “… He has made great progress and shows a mathematical sophistication far beyond his academic standing.”

“Our school reserves the Wexler Prize for the best and the brightest student selected from a highly competitive pool of mathematical science majors,” said Al Boggess, director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. “Jakob Hansen's selection reflects the high regard we have for [him], and we are very proud of his accomplishments.”

In 2014, Hansen was one of 300 students nationwide who received a Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s premier award for undergraduates studying science, math and engineering. This year, in addition to the Wexler Prize, he was also named Dean’s Medalist for the Department of Economics and received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship honorable mention.

Horst Thieme

Thieme, professor of mathematics, was named the recipient of the 2015 Charles Wexler Teaching Award. The award is presented each year to an outstanding teacher of undergraduate mathematics in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, based on nominations made by undergraduate mathematics majors.

Thieme said he was honored to win the award and thanked everybody who nominated him.

 “My colleagues got the impression that I would not retire without having won the award," the 27-year ASU veteran said jokingly. "I think I am the oldest Wexler awardee so far."

He facetiously added that his new choice of clothing could have also contributed to his nomination: “In all the years, I taught in dress pants, but I switched to jeans roughly a year ago.”

Originally from Germany, Thieme earned his master’s in mathematics and a doctorate in natural sciences at the Westfalische Wilhelms University in Munster. He also completed the habilitation (the highest academic qualification a scholar can achieve by his or her own pursuit in Germany) in the natural sciences at the Ruprecht-Karls University in Heidelberg.

“Professor Horst Thieme has had a long and distinguished career in teaching and research here at ASU,” said Boggess. “He is an outstanding classroom teacher and an excellent mentor to both undergraduates and graduate students who pursue research in mathematical biology. His selection for the Wexler Teaching Award is long overdue.”

Students who nominated Thieme praised him for his thoroughness, precision and organization.

Thieme said he became interested in mathematics in high school, “when we got to integration. I still like integrals. To some degree, I have built my mathematical career on changing the order of integration in various contexts.” 

In college, Thieme started out as a mathematics and philosophy double major but then discovered what he calls “Mind Trek.”

“Mathematics offers the best opportunity for your mind to go where no mind has gone before,” he said.

Thieme is well known for his research in mathematical biology, with numerous works on subjects centered on population biology and transmission and control of infectious disease.

Hansen and Thieme were honored at the 38th annual Charles Wexler Awards ceremony on April 10, held in Wexler Hall on the ASU’s Tempe campus.