A man in a white shirt smiling at the camera

Professor Hal Schenck is Rosemary Kopel Brown Eminent Scholars Chair in the Mathematics Department at Auburn University in the USA. He came to Oxford early in 2023 on a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship to work with long-time collaborators based at the Mathematics Institute.

When Hal arrived in Oxford in Hilary term he was without a college association, as his Leverhulme grant had come through later than expected and plans had to be made quickly. It was difficult to find a college that could accommodate a visiting member at short notice. But, as Hal says, “when I got to Oxford, I asked around, and several people mentioned that LMH had a welcoming reputation...and this was (happily for me) indeed the case!”.

Hal joined LMH as a Visiting Academic for Trinity term, and quickly integrated into college life. When asked what his highlights were from his time in Oxford, Hal doesn’t hesitate: “Making connections with the people - faculty, students, staff - at LMH. The Maths Institute provides a great atmosphere for research... but what was novel for me was the collegiate system. The chance to have conversations and forge friendships with people from other disciplines, the spirit of camaraderie and sense of a shared mission... it was memorable, and wonderful.” 

Hal studied Computer Science as an undergraduate before serving four years as an Army Officer. Describing his path towards a career in academia, Hal says: “When jumping out of planes got boring, I began rereading my old maths books. This led to graduate school, and then life in academia. I enjoy both teaching and research; one of the great things about academia is that we get to spend our time figuring out (at least occasionally!) how things work, and sharing knowledge with others.”

Having never spent any extended time in the UK, Hal’s Leverhulme Visiting Professorship gave him the opportunity to come to Oxford and work with his collaborators face-to-face on their project, which was (meant to be) centred around topological data analysis. Hal explains: “Topology is a field of abstract mathematics which, roughly speaking, investigates shape. The goal is to apply topological machinery to extract meaning from massive data sets, so the field is often referred to as studying "the shape of data". As it turned out, we ended up writing a paper on a completely different topic: on the differential equations that govern synchronization. For example, why do certain swarms of fireflies sometimes begin flashing in unison?"

Asked about what his biggest takeaway from his time in Oxford and at LMH would be, Hal replies: “I think the biggest takeaway for me was the reminder that when a visitor to a new place reaches out to make a connection.... we should extend a hand back. Thanks to everyone at LMH for this.”