Cal Poly Pomona’s Jennifer Switkes was one of three college professors in the country to receive a prestigious award from the Mathematical Association of America in January.
Switkes was honored with the Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics at the largest mathematics meeting in the world, a joint meeting of the American Mathematical Society and the MAA in Baltimore.
Switkes’ humility and desire to put students first – she was quick to point out the Cal Poly Pomona alumni also at the Baltimore meeting to give presentations – is at the core of her character. She said her students contributed to her receiving such a high honor.
“I feel like many of my colleagues do the same things I do,” Switkes said.
One of the things she was recognized for is providing project based assignments that help students stretch their limits, develop new skills and grow.
“With the group projects, you read an article, then ‘discover’ what you can do with it,” said Esteban Escobar, a McNair Scholars and Kellogg Honors Scholar. “In math one question leads to another, then another and so on. Professor Switkes is a great mentor, always there if you need her.”
Switkes has been teaching and mentoring students at Cal Poly Pomona for the last 18 years. She took a sabbatical in 2013 to teach at the University of Makerere in Kampala, Uganda. More than five years later, she still keeps in touch with many of her former students.
“Some became teachers or went back to their villages to start schools,” she said. “Others have become entrepreneurs.”
Switkes is passionate about serving the underserved and has also been active in the Prison Education Project started by CPP Political Science Professor Renford Reese. She taught math to prisoners in Norco and Uganda and draws inspiration from Robert Moses’ book “Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project,” which emphasizes the importance of math literacy for social mobility.
A common charge leveled against some mathematics instruction is that it isn’t used for practical purposes in the real world. Switkes and her students prove that assertion wrong.
Escobar, whose research she’s mentoring, is using mathematical modeling to develop cancer treatment regimens to maximize treatment while minimizing side effects from chemotherapy. The research uses data from the work of faculty members Lisette De Pillis and Weiqing Gu of Harvey Mudd, and Ami Radunskaya of Pomona College, who modeled tumor response to chemotherapy and immunotherapy.
“Our goal is to decrease the suffering of cancer patients.” Escobar said. “Using math to model something in the real world reveals the sheer beauty of mathematics.”
Other students in Switkes’ class have applied mathematical modeling to issues such as traffic flow problems, predicting serial killer behavior and ecological challenges.
In addition to the teaching award from the MAA, Switkes will receive an Outstanding Alumna award from Harvey Mudd College in May that recognizes “alumni who have made significant contributions to humanity and society in the areas of community service, global contribution, and science and technology.”
She completed her combined bachelor’s degree in math and physics there in 1994 and will be honored at their alumni weekend celebration on May 4.