Christopher Leininger, ’97, has just been named a Fellow of the American Mathematical Society. Chris is a professor at Rice University.
When did you attend Ball State and what did you study?
I attended Ball State University from 1992 to 1997. I entered as a Mathematics Education major, and switched to a Mathematics major in January of 1996. I aspired to teach high school math and coach football, but was gripped by the allure of mathematics near the end of my studies and switched majors. Most importantly, I met my wife, Katie, during my freshman year and we were married in 1995 while we were both undergraduates.
What does your day-to-day work look like?
I’m a Professor of Mathematics at Rice University in Houston, Texas, currently serving as Director of Graduate Studies. My daily work involves a few hours of administrative tasks, mostly responding to emails related to DGS responsibilities, editorial duties, committee service, and student questions. During the semester, a portion of the day is spent on teaching responsibilities, including preparation and delivery of lectures, writing homework and exam problems. Another big chunk of time is spent meeting with my Ph.D. advisees to discuss their research projects and progress toward their dissertation. The rest of my time is spent thinking and talking about math with my collaborators.
Will you describe your career path?
After graduating from Ball State, I started the PhD program in Mathematics at The University of Texas in Austin. I completed my degree in 2002, and was awarded a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship which I held at Columbia University and Barnard College in New York City. During that time Katie and I had our two children, Marie and Emily. In 2005 we moved to Illinois where I took a tenure-track position as an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I moved up the ranks to Associate Professor and then Professor at Illinois, then in 2019 accepted my current position as Professor at Rice.
How have you grown through your jobs and leading to your current position?
Over the course of my career, my emphasis has shifted from primarily research-focused to helping build a mathematical community through service, including mentoring junior mathematicians and organizing of conferences and programs aimed at bringing together researchers at all levels with common interests.
What is the most fulfilling part of your current job?
I find most aspects of my job quite fulfilling, but get the most joy from advising Ph.D. students. I have so far directed the Ph.D. dissertations of 11 students, I have 2 more set to defend their dissertations in the spring of 2023, and am currently supervising another 5 students. What makes this so enjoyable is that I get to discuss mathematics at a very high level with these students, learn from them as they learn and create new mathematics and explain it to me, and watch them grow as they struggle and (hopefully) eventually succeed.
What are the most valuable skills you learned at Ball State and how have they helped you post-graduation?
I learned so much from the wonderful faculty in the Department of Mathematics at Ball State who helped me develop my mathematical foundations and showed me what mathematics was all about, opening my eyes to its limitless possibilities.
Is there a particular class, professor, or opportunity that had a significant impact on you?
There were many influential faculty members at Ball State who shaped my career, most notably Professors John Emert, Kerry Jones, Michael Karls, and Kay Roebuck, who all played a big part in my becoming a mathematician. Undoubtedly, the most influential person was Professor Ralph Bremigan. It was Ralph’s “Introduction to Abstract Algebra” class that captivated me; his enthusiasm, clarity of exposition, and encouragement opened my eyes to the world of mathematics. It was during his class that I decided to switch majors and pursue a career as a research mathematician. He continued to mentor me for the remainder of my time at Ball State, providing excellent guidance, thoughtful advice, and kind friendship.
What advice do you have for current or future students in your field?
For anyone considering pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics, the most important advice I can give is this: don’t get discouraged. Learning and creating mathematics to solve problems can be incredibly frustrating, but with patience, dedication, and time, I believe anyone can do it.