Connecting campuses to promote excellence in math and science

2012 Janet Andersen Lecture Award Winners

Physical Sciences, Mathematics and Computer Science

Professor Timothy Pennings

Department of Mathematics
Formerly of Hope College, Holland, MI


Professor Tim Pennings was selected for the 2012 Janet Andersen Award in the Physical Sciences. The following paragraphs are taken from the letter of nomination submitted by a colleague at Hope;


As a mathematician, Tim is interested not just in mathematics itself, but in what mathematics canteach us about nature and about ourselves. Tim is well known across the country and even the world for the series of papers he has written about his dog, a Welsh Corgi named Elvis. While throwing a tennis ball in to Lake Michigan one afternoon and watching Elvis retrieve it, Tim noticed that Elvis ran along the beach before diving into the water and swimming diagonally to fetch the ball. A standard calculus problem involves finding the path that minimizes the time for such a journey, if running and swimming speeds are different. After taking many measurements, Tim discovered Elvis followed a path that was very close to the optimal path predicted by calculus. Tim wrote a paper called “Do Dogs Know Calculus?” based on his observations, and because of its interest to a general audience, the story was picked up by many national news organizations. It also issued in several outgrowths of the original work. Within the mathematics community, some European mathematicians wondered whether Elvis was using calculus of variations to solve a series of local optimization problems rather than using calculus to solve a global generalization problem, and two American mathematicians wrote a paper “Dogs Don’t Need Calculus” to advance that argument. Tim followed with a paper entitled “Do Dogs Know Calculus? A Statistical Investigation” (co-authored with Airat Bekmetjev) and another paper entitled “Do Dogs Know Bifurcations?” (co-authored with Roland Minton), for which the authors received the George Polya Award for Expository Excellence from the Mathematics Association of America. Tim has given mathematics talks about his work with Elvis at colleges, universities, and high schools across the country. As anyone who has been to one of the many talks knows, Tim does not claim that Elvis does the calculus computations in his head, but rather than nature has an uncanny way of finding the optimal solution. His talks about Elvis are accessible to general audiences and are very lively and engaging, especially when Elvis is allowed to join Tim in the presentation.


He has mentored dozens of students in a wide range of projects, many of which reach across disciplines: modeling the so-called “Arab Spring” phenomenon that occurred in the Middle East and Northern Africa last spring, optimizing a volleyball serve, modeling white tailed deer populations, modeling the psychological theory of connectionism to explain why the learning curve is S-shaped, modeling tritrophic interactions in a biological system containing aphids, grasses, and parasitoid wasps – to mention just a few. One summer Tim mentored an engineering student on the mathematics of bicycle dynamics; the next summer, that student worked with an engineering faculty member to implement the mathematics he had learned with Tim to design and create a control system for a bicycle that would steer itself.” 






Biological Sciences and Psychology

Professor Eric Cole 
Department of Biology 
St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN

Professor Eric Cole was selected for the 2012 Janet Andersen Award in the Biological Sciences. The following few paragraphs are taken from the letter of nomination submitted by his colleague at Beloit.

My nomination of Eric is based largely on two considerations. First, Eric has a matureresearch program in progress which can serve as the base for an interesting, informativelecture at the undergraduate symposium.   Second, this research activity has been wellfunded to the point of being a prototype for research funding at a primarily undergraduateinstitution and has involved a large number of student researchers.  Eric has also been aneffective classroom teacher, teaching a variety of courses both on- and off-campus Hissections generally are the first to fill, one indication of the students' reaction to his teaching. However, it is primarily upon his research productivity and his involvement  of students inthis enterprise that the nomination is made.


Eric does molecular biology research on the Tetrahymena thermophilia organism centered around itsgenetic and biochemical aspects.  He has approached  his studies from a variety of angles and has beensuccessful in obtaining publishable results from each of them.  His most recent work involvescooperating with St. Olaf chemistry professor Douglas Beussman  in using mass spectrometric techniquesto determine amino acid sequences in proteins isolated from the Tetrahymena nuclear exchangejunction which received strong funding via an NSF-RUI grant.  Eric has supervised  independentresearch projects during the regular school year in addition to having from 2-5 students working inresearch each summer, resulting in 20 public student presentations.


Eric writes on one of his web pages;


On the teaching front, I enjoy being one of a team of four faculty who introduce students to Biology in our Bio125 course. During January term, I alternate teaching Investigative Microscopy on campus, and leading off campus studies with St. Olaf's SCUBA instructor, John Campion, on a variety of islands in the Caribbean and South Pacific. In the spring, I teach Developmental Biology as a research- intensive upper level investigative course. I also teach a non-majors course entitled Life: Meaning & Mystery; Science, Spirit & Stewardship. In the research laboratory my colleagues Erica Zweifel, Kate Stuart and I lead a team of undergraduate researchers as we explore the intricacies of Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics within a single celled organism: Tetrahymena thermophila. During the summer months, I also help deliver workshops with Dr. Leland Johnson on Developmental Biology at the Darling Marine Center, Damariscotta, Maine. Outside of class I practice Tai Chi, enjoy exploring Natural History, and celebrate the creation of Home and Family.