Alek Kawczynski’s college career started earlier than most students’. Alek, known as AJ, was thirteen years old when he finished the last available math class, Advanced Placement Calculus BC, at his local high school, Haddonfield Memorial High School. Always passionate about math, AJ wanted to continue his math education, now at the college-level. Rutgers–Camden became a clear choice for AJ, he says, in part because “it offers academically challenging courses and it has a reputation for helping the community.” AJ’s parents and school administrators reached out to Dr. Gabor Toth, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics, and at that time, the chair of the Department of Mathematical Sciences, about AJ taking classes at Rutgers–Camden. Dr. Toth agreed, and AJ quickly got started.
“My first semester was a great experience,” AJ says. “I had the opportunity to tackle challenging coursework with a professor who made it easy to learn. I knew from the start that Rutgers–Camden was a great fit.” AJ took a class each fall and spring semester, in topics like Differential Equations, Linear Algebra, Number Theory, and Analysis. “The math classes at Rutgers–Camden helped me to grow as a student because I had access to material that I never would have been able to study otherwise,” he says. His connections with the math faculty also led to him working with a professor in another department, Dr. Rajiv Gandhi, Professor of Computer Science. Dr. Gandhi runs the Program on Algorithmic and Combinatorial Thinking (PACT), a six-week summer course focused on theoretical concepts at Princeton University. AJ was accepted into the program, and says “the intense and hands-on style of the course really challenged me.”
Additionally, AJ credits faculty members like Dr. Toth, Dr. Mahesh Nerurkar, Professor of Mathematics; Dr. Howard Jacobowitz, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics; and Dr. Siqi Fu, Professor of Mathematics and chair of the department, with helping him grow as a mathematician. Dr. Fu had received a National Science Foundation grant to study spectral theory of complex Laplace operators. Part of the grant was to support undergraduate students’ study and research projects on related areas. Dr. Fu, impressed by AJ’s talent and maturity, offered AJ the opportunity to study harmonic analysis and inverse spectral problem under his supervision. Dr. Fu invited AJ to join a math study group that examined a version of mathematician Mark Kac’s problem “can one hear the shape of a drum?” Essentially, the question the team worked to answer is: can one determine the shape of a drum from how it sounds, provided the drum is shaped like a convex polygon? AJ explains, “The problem was to mathematically prove whether it was possible for two drums that were two different shapes to sound exactly the same.” The group computed frequencies of vibration of drums of different shapes and studied known results on the subject. In particular, they learned how to establish mathematically the fact that while one cannot hear the shape of the drum in general, one can indeed hear the shape of a drum if the drum is shaped like a triangle. “The math study group was definitely the most challenging experience I had at Rutgers–Camden. Dr. Fu introduced us to different theorems and concepts that we would need to treat the overall problem, and then also showed us how to prove those theorems. His in-depth treatment of the problem made the class both challenging and fun.”
AJ graduated from Haddonfield Memorial High School in June 2018. He was accepted to a number of universities, including Cal Tech and Harvard. He has chosen Princeton University and is considering majoring in either math or computer science. A member of his high school baseball team, AJ says his dream job would be to work in the front office of a major league team, using analytics and mathematical modeling in order to determine which players to sign, how to use them, and how to run a team as a whole.
As AJ prepares for his future and looks back at the past five years, he says, “I am sincerely grateful for the opportunity that I was given to attend Rutgers–Camden. My experiences were better than I could have imagined.”
Written by Julie Roncinske
Pictured up top, from left to right: Matt DeMarco, AJ Kawczynski, Dr. Siqi Fu, and Kelsey Kruger.