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Sarah Olson Appointed Interim Head of Mathematical Sciences at WPI

Olson is the first woman to lead the department

March 3, 2021
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Sarah Olson, professor of mathematical sciences in the School Arts & Sciences, has been appointed interim head of the department. Olson, who joined WPI in 2011, is the first woman to lead the department in the university’s 156-year history.

She succeeds Luca Capogna, who was department head for seven years and oversaw the hiring of 14 tenure track professors and six non-tenure track faculty, guided the professional growth of junior faculty members, and helped grow a culture of diversity and inclusion through programs like WPI’s STEM Faculty Launch Workshop and the Applied and Industrial Mathematics Institute for Secondary Teaching program for K-12 educators. Capogna, professor of mathematical sciences, is returning to full-time teaching and research in the fields of geometric analysis and partial differential equations, for which he has been recognized as a national leader.

Olson says she is excited about further strengthening the department as it provides a foundational skill for all WPI students. “Mathematics gives you a way of thinking that enables you to approach problems across disciplines,” she says, noting she looks forward to helping students recognize the value not only of math itself, but also of the cutting-edge research being done in mathematics. 

“We want to change the image some students have of math as a course you simply need to take to graduate, and help them see it’s at the core of STEM and can help them understand and answer big questions in other disciplines. 

“I want to get students more excited about mathematics, in general,” she says. “I also want to nurture younger faculty and make sure they have the resources they need to seek promotion and thrive. I think it’s important to have a supportive and energizing working environment, and it’s exciting for mathematics faculty to contribute to all the great things going on at WPI.”

Being the first woman to oversee Mathematical Sciences, one of the largest departments at the university, offers Olson an opportunity to inspire female students and faculty alike and to help them visualize real possibilities for themselves, says Jean King, the Peterson Family Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences.

“Sarah is at the top level in teaching, research, and service, and that’s exciting for others to see,” says King. “As a young girl, math was important to me, but I never had professors in college who were female mathematicians. Not once. Seeing a woman mathematician heading up one of the largest departments on campus is powerful. Showing someone in that spot is so much more powerful than telling someone they can be in that spot. This is another example of WPI showing young women—whether students or faculty or staff—that they, too, can do anything.”

Olson, who served as Graduate Coordinator for Mathematical Sciences until December 2020, also is professor of Bioinformatics & Computational Biology, where she advises PhD students and is on the program’s Steering Committee. And she is professor of Biomedical Engineering. She serves as a mentor to Major Qualifying Project teams, PhD students, postdocs, and new faculty. She designed the course “Top Algorithms in Applied Mathematics” and redesigned a course that offers an introduction to modern computational methods for calculus and differential equations. 

With a significant track record in sponsored research, she received a coveted NSF CAREER Award in 2015 to develop several computational modeling frameworks to simulate and study sperm motility to aid in fertility treatments. Similarly, she received a Fulbright Faculty Scholar Award in 2018 to conduct research at the Alfréd Rényi Institute of Mathematics at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to develop algorithms that can simulate the movement of cells. She also has received funding from the National Institutes of Health to develop computational models for cancer research.

—Sharon Gaudin