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Thinking anew about mathematics

An Eberly graduate student finds inspiration in math, community, and teaching
27 July 2020

When everything changed for Dominic Veconi, he was in the third year of his undergrad at Hamilton College, double-majoring in biochemistry and math in the premed track. “I was very single minded about this,” he recalls, “absolutely certain that I was going to go on to medical school.” The only reason he was doing a second major in math, he says, was “because it was very convenient and logistically easy to tack on. And I was good enough at it that it wasn’t any big burden. I just went through the motions.”

Dominic Veconi
   Dominic Veconi

Like many students, Veconi says his impression at the time was that to be a math major “you did a series of calculations for homework, and they just got progressively more sophisticated.” But then, unexpectedly, he found himself so enamored with one of his courses that it inspired him to think more rigorously about the logical underpinnings of mathematics—and that completely changed his conception of the field. “I realized I was very wrong,” he says. “Mathematics is not just an ascending tower of more-sophisticated calculations. It’s actually much deeper, and much more philosophically profound.”

At the same time, Veconi was finding himself less excited by his biochemistry coursework, and after several months of soul-searching and a series of conversations with his professors and advisers, he applied and was accepted to a summer research internship in mathematics between his junior and senior year. “That was sort of my first toe in the water,” he says. “I just started pulling that thread, seeing where it led to, and eventually I realized—this is what I want to be doing.” Soon after, he applied and was accepted to Penn State’s graduate program in Mathematics. 

But at University Park, he found the transition to be harder than he had anticipated. “I had a fairly difficult time adjusting in my first year at Penn State,” Veconi says. “The responsibilities that come with being a graduate student—that was a lot of new territory I wasn't really comfortable with at first, and that made things very difficult for me.” After a couple years struggling, he began to see similar signs in some of his fellow students. “I realized—I'm not the only person having this problem, and very few of them are comfortable saying ‘I need help.’” 

So Veconi joined a group of graduate students working with math professor Nate Brown to develop a first-year mentoring program. “This was a program to pair incoming first-year students with second-, third-, and fourth-year students,” he explains, “to help them acclimate and adjust to Penn State and to being a graduate student.” As the program grew, Veconi says he started to see other areas where he and his fellow students could get involved in creating positive change. “It just sort of opened the floodgates,” he says, “and this culminated in our starting a GSA, a graduate student association.” With the department’s administration and other faculty, Veconi and other students in the GSA began addressing concerns from the student body and working together to create, in his words, “positive culture and climate and community.”

“Our current heads of graduate study and the professors I've spoken to about this have all been very supportive,” Veconi says. “It's the kind of thing that I think everyone wanted to see happen for a long time—it just took a little bit of time to get the ball rolling. I'm glad to see that it's rolling now.”

The GSA also benefited another initiative that Veconi is particularly proud of—a more rigorous teaching training program for the department’s new graduate students. “That program didn't exist when I started out,” he says. “Although it started about a semester before the GSA did, the GSA became an effective conduit of communication for the first-year students in the program, and I'm proud that the GSA was able to help in this capacity. One of the reasons why I came to Penn State was because I knew that I was going to have a serious opportunity to teach, to get classroom experience, to really learn what it's like being on the other side of things. It was really important to me to get that kind of experience, and I'm very grateful for that.”

Veconi’s passion for teaching is evident in his perspective on pedagogy as well as in his commitment to his students. “To me,” he says, “mathematics is a story. And when your students get to the climax of the story and realize, ‘Oh, that's what's going on! That's where this is going.’—seeing that light, that moment of excitement, is one of the most satisfying things to me.” That spark of realization is something Veconi strives to achieve with every student, and he is quick to dismiss the stereotype of being—or not being—a so-called math person. “Mathematics is a skill,” he says, “not an innate ability. It's a skill that anyone can develop with practice, and that anyone is capable of doing.”

Looking down the road, Veconi envisions himself as a professor, much like the ones who inspired him, teaching at an institution like the one where he got his start, hopefully inspiring students much like himself. “I love working closely with individual students,” he says. “There’s a quote from Albert Einstein, ‘The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks,’ and I tell my students that at the beginning of every semester, no matter what course I'm teaching, because I think that's what's really important. That's my goal—to help students learn how to think. And if I'm doing my job right, they'll have a great time doing it.”