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Math department earns top 10 world ranking

Duke’s mathematics department is 10th in the world, according to Times Higher Education.

Times released its rankings June 2, placing Duke above institutions such as Columbia University, Cornell University and MIT. The publication considered the number of research papers published by the departments as well as the percentage of those that were highly-cited, between January 2001 and February 2011. The ranking system defines highly cited papers as those “that rank in the top 1 percent by citations for their field and year of publication.”

Following Stanford University, Duke scored second-highest in terms of the percentage of highly-cited papers with 6.3 percent, exceeding the average polled percentage by more than six times.

“Math is getting to be a stronger department, owing in large measure to strong hires over about the last 10 years,” said Harold Layton, chair of the mathematics department. “This must surely have an impact on our having a large number of publications and a percentage of them that is highly cited.”

Other top 10 mathematics departments included Johns Hopkins University—ranked first—followed by Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley, University of Minnesota, University of Washington, Harvard University, Princeton University, California Institute of Technology and Brown University.

Prominent faculty members also give Duke’s department an advantage, said Paul Aspinwall, associate chair of the mathematics department, adding that hiring Ingrid Daubechies and Rick Durrett will presumably mean even higher rankings for the department’s graduate program in upcoming years.

Both Daubechies and Durrett have made significant contributions to their respective fields, and both are members of the United States National Academy of Sciences. Daubechies specializes in image compression and discovered the wavelets that led to the invention of the JPEG 2000—the format many people use to save photos and other data. Durrett specializes in probability and stochastic processes.

Although Duke was ranked 10th in the world by the Times rankings, U.S. News and World Report ranked the graduate program 24th in the country. U.S. News bases its rankings on departmental chairs’ perceptions of other universities’ departments, a much more subjective measure than that of the Times, Aspinwall said.

“One of the ways that you measure your influence in academia is how many people cite your papers, how many people read your papers,” said Robert Calderbank, dean of natural sciences and professor of mathematics. “I think that in some ways, we get special credit being a math department, which is a harmonious mixture of what I’ll call pure and what I’ll call applications because actually I think that different subjects have different behavior, different phenomena [and] citations.”

One reason why Duke may have fared better in the Times ranking is that the department places such a large focus on research, as almost every professor does research, Aspinwall noted.

“If you compare us to most of the other people in the top 20, we’re a department that’s smaller,” Aspinwall said. “The number of papers and citations are lower because the number of faculty’s actually lower.... There’s a more personal experience [at Duke]—we’re a more tightly-knit group.”

The two principal requirements for being hired as faculty in the department are excellent teaching skills and very strong research credentials, Layton said. Such faculty frequently receive federal grants that help support research conducted by graduate students and postdoctoral students.

“A large part of our mission is to be stewards of what we have learned and to pass on that learning to the next generation,” Layton said. “The math department puts heavy emphasis on teacher-training for our graduate students and post-docs and on providing for them the experience of teaching.”

Layton also noted that he believes the department’s high ranking will likely attract additional undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students and perhaps faculty.

Both Calderbank and Daubechies, who are married, came to Duke from Princeton at the beginning of Fall 2010. The two were attracted to the increased opportunities that Duke would offer in order for the couple to make changes and take risks in their fields, Calderbank said.

“There’s a conservatism that attaches to the Ivy League in particular,” he said. “If you were to tell Harvard and Princeton that tomorrow the world is never going to change then, from their point of view, that would be fine because they’re really happy about how the world is right now and their position…. So in a sense, I think there’s more [of a] spirit of adventure here.”


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