Lots of scientists and engineers will tell you that as children, they loved taking apart old computers, radios, TVs or other appliances, and then putting them back together. Not Chris Danforth, Assistant Professor in the Mathematics Department of the UVM College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. "I was always interested in how things worked," he says. "I demolished some televisions and computer monitors in order to figure out why they functioned. But I wasn't really interested in putting them back together. I was into art, and I would use pieces of the monitors to make sculptures."
Danforth's father is a Materials Science and Engineering professor at Rutgers and his mother is a retired professional modern dancer, so he comes by his interest in creative science honestly. "I was sure that I wanted to be a scientist, and decided early on that applied math would be the right avenue because it provided the opportunity to work in all fields of science 'under the hood.' There were times when I thought that maybe I would like to be a guitarist or tennis player, but I knew that if I wanted to start a family and have a career, I should stick with math."
So he "stuck with math" and received his B.S with honors in Mathematics and Physics from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in 2001, and earned his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics and Scientific Computation from the University of Maryland in 2006.
Balancing Academics with Athletics and More
Professor Danforth tries to balance his academics with an active athletic life. He can often be seen at the gym or on the basketball court, where he more than holds his own against other UVM players, whether faculty, staff or students. "When you're someone who does math for a living, you spend a fair amount of time sitting at a desk. I'm a firm believer that athletics are the healthiest avenue to expend the excess energy. Lifting weights, running, and playing basketball or tennis whatever it is that you like to do will improve your quality of life. You meet like-minded people, and it's a competitive outlet."
Athletics play a part in his personal life, as well. His wife, Kate, who is also an educator, was an All-American basketball player at Bates College, where they met. Danforth was cagey when asked who would win a one-on-one game between them, but he freely admitted that she always beats him in games of H-O-R-S-E. Upon their move to Vermont, the Danforths settled in Shelburne and are the proud parents of almost-2-year-old Harper.
In addition to athletics, Danforth also enjoys playing music. "I've always loved music and done math while listening to music. In college, I had a 'healthy addiction' to video games but quit to learn how to play the guitar. I taught myself how to play, and mathematics was instrumental no pun intended in helping me understand how songs are built. Nothing serious, though. Playing for my family at open mic nights is the highlight of my musical career."
A Love of Research and Teaching
Family, sports, and music are important to Danforth; they help him balance his busy life as a University professor who is actively engaged in research and enjoys teaching. His research focuses on representing uncertainty in models of physical systems (like the atmosphere). He has collaborated with researchers at the University of Maryland for about five years and his paper, "Estimating and Correcting Global Weather Model Error," appeared in the February issue of Monthly Weather Review and was highlighted in the Papers of Note section of March's Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.
When asked about current research projects, Danforth discussed working with the National Center for Environmental Prediction and NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in order to understand how uncertainty grows in estimates of the state of the weather and climate when making predictions. In addition, he's working on a project with the Biochemistry Department and the Medical School at UVM on models of blood clotting. He's also working with fellow CEMS faculty members Dr. Peter Dodds and Dr. Josh Bongard on the role of collective influence in decision making and the spread of contagion over the Internet. If anyone would like to find out more about his research, please visit his website. "I love this stuff," he says, "so don't hesitate to contact me."
Danforth's love of teaching is evident when he discusses his students. He uses words like "creative, smart, and funny" to describe them, and looks forward to class time. "I like to bring the outside world into the math classroom. For example, in my numerical analysis classes, we just looked at how images are manipulated for the purpose of compression and transmission. We talk about how Google uses linear algebra to rank pages on the web, and in my chaos class we talk about why the weather is so unpredictable, and why global climate change is so difficult to characterize with certainty."
Happy in Vermont
Although Dr. Danforth grew up in New Jersey, and spent many years in Maryland, he was happy professionally and personally about his move to Vermont. "I'm excited about the direction the College is going in under Dean Grasso. The new National University Transportation Center and the Vermont Advanced Computing Center were attractive potential research resources, and the College is hiring people interested in Complex Systems. I wanted to be able to collaborate with CEMS faculty immediately and it worked out well. I'm also excited about the atmosphere in Burlington. It's a healthy place, people here are athletic and conscious of social and environmental issues, and I knew this would be a wonderful place to raise children."
To "sum it up," Dr. Chris Danforth says, "I can't imagine a better way to spend my day than thinking about how the world works and discussing it with people whose interest and excitement about science is mutual."