Bates welcomes new faculty: Katharine Ott, mathematics

Katharine Ott, assistant professor of mathematics. (Sarah Crosby/Bates College)

Katharine Ott, assistant professor of mathematics. (Sarah Crosby/Bates College)

In July, Katharine Ott taught at a weeklong math retreat for high school girls.

The Brown University retreat was intended to bolster girls’ enthusiasm for math at the age when, research indicates, they often start losing it. The curriculum combined mathematics and computational studies.

“A lot of the girls had not done computer programming,” says Ott, who joined the Bates math faculty this fall as an assistant professor. “It was a great environment for them to get a taste of that and to see how mathematics and computation go together.”

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Ott and her retreat students devoted a day to computer imaging. “That was really exciting,” she says, “because they see it all around them.

“We talked about image filters. You know, here they are, using Instagram on their smartphones all day long. But none of them thought that math had anything to do with it.”

Ott is eager to contribute to Bates’ strong track record in bringing more women into math, as well as students from other groups underrepresented in the field. She considers that work as much a part of her job as research and teaching. “Women are making slow gains” in the profession of mathematics, “but any way you look at it, women are not equally represented,” she says.

“Obviously there is no clear answer why — otherwise we would have fixed it,” she says. “I certainly want to do what I can to encourage girls, especially middle school and high school girls. That’s an age, perhaps, where we can make a difference.”

Active in the Association for Women in Mathematics, in 2011 and 2013 Ott organized a Sonia Kovalevsky High School Mathematics Day, the AWM’s longstanding workshop program for teenage girls, at her previous institution, the University of Kentucky.

“You don’t expect them all to pursue math,” she allows, “but if they have a positive experience, then you hope that they’ll go to college and take that first or second math class. Then from there we can keep pushing things forward — and start evening things out.”

A theoretical mathematician, Ott researches partial differential equations using tools from a branch of mathematics known as harmonic analysis. Partial differential equations can be used to understand dynamic phenomena in which multiple factors change at the same time — manifestations of sound, elasticity or heat, for instance.

Supported by a three-year individual investigator award from the National Science Foundation, Ott studies “boundary value” problems. “I know certain information on the boundary of a domain,” she explains, “and I want to see if I can use that information to learn about what is happening inside the domain.”

For instance, if one knows the temperature of the walls, ceiling and floor of a room, and knows the physical laws that govern the transfer of heat, can an equation be devised to determine the temperature at any point inside the room?

Ott relishes the potential for new discoveries in this branch of mathematics — as well as the creative and intellectual challenge of making those discoveries.

As a teacher, she hopes to share the rewards of this process with her students. “You build a foundation of tools and knowledge,” she explains, “and you practice and train yourself to look to that toolbox to enable those leaps of understanding. That’s a hard place for students to get to,” she says.

“So when students can do that, they get very excited, and as their teacher, I get pretty excited too. It’s fun to watch. I mean, it’s very rewarding to make those breakthroughs in mathematics.”

A native of Cumberland, Maine, Ott earned a bachelor’s degree at Middlebury and a doctorate at the University of Virginia. She was at the University of Kentucky as a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow and an assistant professor of mathematics from 2008 until this year.