Michael Reed: Applying Mathematics to Life

Teaching award winner instills students with scientific curiosity

Mathematician Mike Reed

Some professors might scoff at the idea of a student questioning the purpose of one of their lectures, but Michael Reed actually encourages that type of behavior.

"I want my students to ask ‘What is the point? Why does this matter?'" said Reed, a 65-year-old professor of mathematics. "The purpose of teaching is not simply to get across the facts or the material. It is about engaging the students fully in the intellectual idea -- getting them to think, to question, to speculate."

Reed's unconventional approach is just one of the reasons why he won the 2007-08 David and Janet Vaughn Brooks Award, one of the four Trinity College Teaching Awards. Winners are chosen by the Arts and Sciences Council and former teaching award recipients.

This award recognizes faculty who, among other things, encourage intellectual excitement and connect students to the processes of inquiry and discovery.

Making math interesting can be a challenge says Reed, who has been teaching at Duke since 1974. "Traditionally, students are taught methods, but not mathematics," he said. "They may learn how to multiply 34 by 65, but so what -- there is nothing interesting about that."

The trick is identifying what specific aspects of mathematics will captivate students. "Every branch of math has a use -- and many of them are unexpected," said Reed. Number theory, for instance, may seem abstract to many people, but its principles can help cryptographers crack secret codes.

To Reed, a self-proclaimed "closet physiologist," the most appealing application of mathematics is solving questions in medical research. In his courses, Reed uses mathematical proofs and theorems to explain how our bodies work. He covers everything from the function of a camel's nose to the transport of signals in nerve axons.

In his nominating letter, former student and student body president Elliott Wolf said that when hesigned up for one of Reed's courses, he was debating his decision to become a math major. "By the end, I was fanatically dedicated to mathematics, I had been introduced into the world of mathematical and biological research, and I found both a valued friend and mentor," Wolf said.


In class, Reed forces his students to speculate about topics when they can't look up the answer in a book. "Scientists are always trying to find answers where no one knows the answers," said Reed. "Students are completely unaccustomed to this way of thinking, but for them to be successful, that has to change."

The success of his students, not just academically, but professionally, takes top priority with Reed. In his favorite class, a first-year seminar on the applications of mathematics to physiology and medicine, Reed places a big emphasis on improving his students' public speaking abilities. "For most of them, this is going to play a large role in their professional life, so they have to be good at it," Reed said.

One of his students, Reed recalls, was painfully shy and struggled giving her first talk. Reed coached her on how to improve her speaking and gain some confidence. When it was time for her to stand up in front of the group again, she did it without a problem, ending her talk with a smile.

That moment, Reed said, meant more to him than any teaching award possibly could.